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Northland Nature: Green leaves color November woods

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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Wintergreen, with its green leaves and red berries, shown in the mid-November woods. Contributed / Larry Weber

Mid-November is frequently seen as a gray time of year. The colorful leaves have fallen; we usually have no snow cover and clouds often prevail. Until a snow cover remains, these are still the days of “AutWin” — the interlude after leaf fall and a snow cover.

Despite looking like a bland scene and uninteresting walks in the woods, I find the opposite in my wanderings. Highbush cranberry, hawthorn and crab apple all hold their berries and fruits, often red, garnering attention from blue jays, woodpeckers (including pileated), grouse and the local small mammals.

By this date, most insects are not to be seen, but the brown late-season moths and crane flies are still active. In the afternoon sunlight, we can see myriad threads made by spiders as they move through the leafless tree branches, best seen by looking toward and below the sun.

Not all trees of this woods have dropped their leaves. The obvious and common conifers still hold green needles. And I find a trio of unrelated trees with brown leaves still present. Some red oaks (pin oaks to the west and south of here), some sugar maples and many ironwoods will persist through the winter filled with their curled brown foliage.

On the tree trunks and logs, there are many kinds of fungi: puffballs and shelf fungi that do very well at this time of year. Continuing the look on the forest floor, I find several green-leaf plants growing here, too.

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As I walk, I find about a dozen kinds of plants with green leaves in the November woods. Some of these plants, like raspberry, largeleaf aster, pale vetchling, bedstraw and strawberry, may be green, but they appear to be just late plants that will fade soon. Others, such as mosses (probably the most abundant green plant on the forest floor of AutWin), clubmosses (lycopodium and princess-pine) and wood ferns will retain their green under the snow. Wood fern does fade later in the winter, but another fern, rock-cap fern, is a true evergreen.

Mosses, clubmosses and ferns are non-flowering plants, but with some searching, I find several flowering plants that are holding green leaves now; and will continue for the entire winter. I find six kinds.

In the mixed woods, twinflower, pipsissewa and goldthread are remaining green.

Wandering in the deciduous woods, I find three more plants with green leaves among the fallen brown leaves on the ground. Hepatica, pyrola and wintergreen are quite easy to see here and, in some sites, they abound. It is interesting to note that these plants are not related to each other.

All have flowers, but bloom at different times. Hepatica flowers in spring (usually the first in the April woods). Goldthread will also bloom in spring. Twinflower, pipsissewa, pyrola and wintergreen flower in the shade of summer. All form berries or seeds after flowering, but only wintergreen shows its berry at this time.

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A wintergreen plant in November. Contributed / Larry Weber

Next to the oval pointed shiny green leaves of wintergreen are the bright-red berries. And red berries on the forest floor are easy to see now. Many critters, including some human berry pickers, will sample these half-inch berries. Wintergreen should not be confused with winterberry holly of the swamps; it also has red berries.

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Wintergreen (Gaultheria) has white bell-shaped flowers, like that of blueberries, that open in early summer. We may not see the bent-down flowers at that time of year, but now the bright red berries among the green leaves in a mostly brown and bland November woods are a delight to see.

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Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.