Winter Botany: Wildflowers in Winter

It’s winter time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any wildflowers to see. Many of the flowers of the Fells have a winter form you can spot and identify once you know what to look for. Here are a few of the easier ones:

Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata): In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, July 5.


This is one of my favorites. It’s evergreen, so you can spot it on the forest floor any time it’s clear of snow. The dark green leaves with white veins stand out well against the yellow-brown leaf floor.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata): In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, June 23.

 Pipsissewa in bloom. White flowers nodding downward, circle of evergreen leaves at base

Closely related to spotted wintergreen above, pipsissewa has very similar flowers but fairly different leaves. It’s also evergreen, so you can spot it all winter when the ground is clear.

Canada-mayflower (Maianthemum canadense):  In winter, Nov 12. In bloom, May 17.


This plant blankets large swaths of the Fells in spring and summer. In fall, red fruits replace the sweet-smelling white flowers. Most of the fruits have been eaten by winter time, but you’ll still spot them if you keep a close eye out.

Ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora): In winter, Dec 9. In bloom, July 22.

  ghost pipes in flower. 3 white plants with nodding heads

This parasitic plant steals nutrients from the roots of trees instead of photosynthesizing. It’s one of those plants that you can’t stop seeing once you first spot it. In summer, the white flowers stand out clearly. And in winter, the clusters of dark brown stems are still pretty visible against lighter leaves or snow.

What other plants do you look for in winter?

The image above is downy rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyera pubescens). This native, New England orchid had not been seen in the Fells for more than 20 years – until Dennis Crouse and Lindsay Beal re-discovered a small population.

Bryan Hamlin, our local expert on the flora of the Fells, says that a previous botanical survey in 1993 reported its presence. But the survey that he and others conducted from 2004-2012 had not been able to relocate it.

It is really exciting that it has been re-found after so long!

Rattlenake plantain in bloom

Rattlesnake-plantain in bloom – not taken in the Fells

The plants found this year were not blooming. But when this species does flower, it produces a spike of small, white flowers that I find very beautiful.

Closeup of rattlesnake-plantain flowers in bloom

Closeup of rattlesnake-plantain in bloom – not taken in the Fells

Look at the tiny pouch shape that the flowers make and the fine fuzz of hairs that give it the “downy” part of its common name. The “rattlesnake” part probably comes from the patterns on the leaves which look a bit like snake skin. And “plantain” from the leaves’ similarity to common garden plantain (Plantago major).

Dried brown seed capsules

Dried brown seed capsules follow the flowers if they are pollinated

Rattlesnake-plantain flowers in later summer and is pollinated by bees. If you find it at other times of the year, look for the dried brown seed capsules that indicate it flowered the previous season.

The leaves are evergreen, so it’s a great one to look for in late Fall and early Spring when the ground is mostly brown and its bright green leaves stand out.

Downy rattlesnake plantain is fairly common in New England. But, like most other local orchids, it is very sensitive to soil conditions and disturbance. If you’re lucky enough to come across this plant in the Fells or elsewhere, be careful not to trample it or disturb the area around it. And if you do find it in the Fells, take a picture and let us know!

To learn more about this plant, check out these resources:

The Appalachian Mountain Club this week highlighted six locations around the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that are ideal sites for viewing spring wildflowers.  Among the chosen destinations is the Cross Fells Trail in our very own Middlesex Fells Reservation!  Here’s what AMC Outdoors had to say:

A pleasant wildflower hike that can be reached by public transportation from Boston is the Cross Fells Trail, which connects the eastern and western halves of the 2,575-acre Middlesex Fells Reservation. Flowers bloom in the reservation April through September, but the best time to see wildflowers along this trail is in May. The trail passes through wooded areas where you may see bright yellow trout lilies and carpets of wood anemone, and over sunny hilltops where the bell-shaped flowers of lowbush blueberries bloom. Violets and the elegant pink lady slippers can be seen scattered throughout the reservation. Begin at the trailhead near the MBTA’s Oak Grove Orange Line station in Melrose and follow the at times steep and rocky trail to its end. There you can catch the 134 bus back to the Orange Line at Wellington Station.

Make sure and head over to the post on AMC Outdoors to check out the other spots they chose.

Which wildflowers are you most excited to see this spring?  Where in the Fells have you seen them?  Have you visited any of the other spots on the list?  We would love to hear from you in the comments below.