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?

Whose woods these are I think I know”                                                         They’re ours of course, whenever we go.

Walking in the sere winter woods, the lush green of summer feels like a faded distant dream. Curly brown leaves lay where they fell in a protective mantle across the frozen land, rustled by a stiff northern wind. Their mosaic of muted colors displays every shade of tan, from bright light papery beech leaves to the thick shiny bronze oaks. On exposed hillsides unseasonal downpours have carved a twisted course through their deep layers, revealing the curving contours of the landscape

The leaves have fallen to the ground       VW_Dec2014 023
With rustling sound so soft.
Soon winter will come marching in,
With leaden skies aloft.

Bright autumn hues of red and gold
Have faded to dull brown,
But soon an ermine mantle,
Will cover all the ground …

November, Ardenelle M. Mason


In the eddies of brooks, the withered forms of plant stalks stand stiffly holding their shattered seed heads. The arched stems of sweet woodreed dangle over the water like the graceful arms of dancing ballerinas, while punky cat-tail heads explode in slow motion, casting a million tiny parachuted seeds to the wind. Scattered through the marsh, dark green tubular tules spear the air in singular spikes, refusing to bow to the freezing cold.

VW_Dec2014 037 I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.

The Brook, Alfred Lord Tennyson




The bright songbirds of summer that roused us with their dawn chorus, have flown south to warmer climes. In their place a sparrow slips silently through the leaves, eating buds and hidden bugs, it’s mottled tan feathers a perfect foil for flitting unseen. High above among the dense hemlock branches, white-throated nuthatches chatter cheerily, tap tap tapping the giant tree trunks for grubs.


I heard a bird sing                                                       
In the dark of December. sparrow
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

                                      We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

In the dark of December, Oliver Herford


All else is stillness, the deep quiet of waiting out the long winter, for which there is no recourse. The slowness of the season seeps into our thoughts, bringing an inner tranquility of being. We have time to reflect on ourselves and the course of our lives, to reset our goals and paths, to renew our commitments. We return to the woods retracing our steps in its cycles of death and rebirth, finding comfort in the regularity of nature’s rhythms.

VW_Dec2014 054… and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
determine to save
the only life you could save.

The Journey, Mary Oliver