by Jeremy Collings
I have completed this past Fall semester feeling as though I’ve just nearly escaped a bear attack. My propensity to agree to one too many responsibilities has resulted in a bit of burnout. To make matters worse, this semester leads into my least favorite time of year. Daylight is a scarce commodity, and every time I walk outside, the cold air makes me violently shiver. To make matters worse, the holidays bring with them the stress of getting gifts and being present for family traditions. These struggles make December a rather unpleasant month in my eyes.
What really makes this time of year so hard, though, is the lack of plants. Of course, what I am referring to is that most plants in central New York--where I currently live--are nowhere to be found by December. The botanical term for this disappearance is senescence, in which many perennial plants have killed off portions of their shoots, and most annual plants have died altogether. Only the plant seeds remain, to stratify during these cold months to germinate anew next spring. The resulting scenery of leafless stems and buried seeds isn’t quite as exciting to me as that of the growing season.
During times like this, when I am stressed, overwhelmed, or otherwise upset, taking a stroll and seeing my favorite plants provides a sense of belonging. Being able to see and identify all the members of local plant communities makes me feel grounded in the ecosystems that I work, play and relax in.
In early February, I seek out the eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, right) that has begun to sprout and melt the surrounding snow. Little spikes of green dotted with reds and purples are surrounded by rings of grass or mud where the snow has been melted by thermal radiation emitted from these plants. After a long and cold winter, skunk cabbage reminds me that brighter days are just on the horizon.
From March to May, I await the arrival of the myriad of spring ephemerals that pop up in the understory. I look forward to seeing spring beauties (Claytonia virginica, top), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, top), and trout lily (Erythronium americanum, top) for the short duration that they are flowering.
In mid-summer, I tend to spend time in wetlands. I always enjoy making cordage out of the leaves of cattails (Typha spp.). My soft spot for sedges causes me to look for the spiky green inflorescences on the water’s edge. I’m particularly fond of the Carex section Vesicariae. Their flamboyant, air-filled perigynia seem to fit the mood of summer. I’m still a novice at identifying this tricky family, so I often find myself admiring these peculiar plants to the sound of amphibian calls as the sun sets.
In August, more and more patches of gold start to appear in fields and meadows as various species of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) bloom. In the coming months, my attention is fixed on members of the Asteraceae family. Of course, I love to identify the meadow goldenrods as well as the smaller and more delicate understory species. The New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) provides a stark contrast with its purple flowerheads. The last of the goldenrods form their less colorful cypselae sometime in November, just before witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) crafts its spindly yellow flowers that satiate my thirst for floral displays till the snow falls.
Now, there are no flowers outside of the campus greenhouse. It is difficult to persuade my body to endure the cold for a retreat into the woods. I am learning to appreciate what beauties remain (for there are many). Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) maintain their deep green color, and I can occasionally spot some that have escaped being covered in white. The fertile fronds of sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) look like magic wands sticking out from the snow. The deciduous trees appear as wooden skeletons, covered in mosaics of lichens and mosses. The evergreen conifers provide a sense of stability in these harsh months. My favorite among them, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), forms quiet stands that I can hide in when the wind is biting. When I do make it outside, I find myself sitting on a particular fallen black cherry (Prunus serotina), reminiscing about the times I’ve spent with my favorite plants throughout the year. I find solace in the knowledge that they’ll return.
Jeremy is a senior at SUNY Cortland and finishing up his B.S. in Conservation Biology. He loves exploring, experiencing, and learning about the ecology of plants.
Photo Credits: wild leek (Allium triccocum, top) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, bottom) courtesy Sara Kuebbing; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, middle) courtesy the author; spring beauty (Claytonia virginica, top), trout lily (Erythronium americium), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, top) courtesy Mason Heberling.