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Northland Nature: Nature likes to show off its holiday colors, too

The snowfall of late November set the stage for what appeared to be a constant snow cover until spring. But in a surprise move from Mother Nature, mild temperatures and rain in early December melted much of our snowy blanket. Suddenly, the grass ...

The snowfall of late November set the stage for what appeared to be a constant snow cover until spring. But in a surprise move from Mother Nature, mild temperatures and rain in early December melted much of our snowy blanket. Suddenly, the grass that we thought we would not see again for months is visible again. Though we all seem to enjoy the cold shroud for the coming holidays, we also find green very attractive, too.
Spruce and balsam are even brought indoors to give us such a view of green. This has become a tradition in December. Indeed, the colors of green and red are often associated with this time of year. The evergreens give us plenty of green, but no red. Green and red are more likely in the American holly. Leaves and berries from this tree are native to the southeast and not here, but are just as welcome into our society.
The Duluth region does have a native holly, and though this winterberry holly has stems with red berries, it has dropped its leaves. Even most of its bright-colored berries are gone from this swampland shrub by now in mid-December. But other Northland flora keep their greens at this time, too.
Now visible in the scant snow cover in the woods, we can see the green mosses and club mosses. (A confusing name, these 6-inch evergreens are actually cousins of ferns.) Here, too, are leafy flowers that retain green leaves below the snow all winter. Only conditions like the present allow us to see these plants now. Leaves of the spring flowering hepatica as well as the summer blooming pipsissewa, pyrola, and twinflower all appear nearly as green as when they had blossoms.
Another better known flower is still green here, too. This one holds red berries among its smooth, waxy leaves. Such a green-red adornment makes the wintergreen a favorite of the Northland. Because its leaves may be used for tea or gum, this small hardy plant is also known as teaberry or snowberry.
Growing on the forest floor, wintergreens hold quarter-inch bell-shaped white flowers below the 2-inch leaves. Among the rest of the woods in summer, we hardly noticed the plants. As most other plants faded in fall and the wintergreen did not, we noticed it more. But now with green leaves and bright red berries among the snow patches, it stands out more and adds a bit of the holidays to the Northland forest.
These plants seem to grow best on the south or west facing hills or roadsides that provide more sunlight. The thick waxy covering keeps the leaves from drying out in the arid winter air, but the snow cover is a great help, too. Now, the light snow coat may be better for us to see this plant, but wintergreen is likely to survive the chill better under the usual snowfall. Soon the plants may be in their familiar hidden subniveal world, but for now they add green and red to the winter.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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