Northland Nature: Winterberry holly stands out in swamps
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 email@example.com.
It came on rather quickly. November began warm. Both the first and second days had high temperatures that tied records for those dates. Though the record setting was over, the first week of the month continued to be warmer than normal. And then the weather started to change.
Nov. 9 gave us a day of thick fog. With temperatures in the low 40s, we got some rain, but it was the fog that prevailed. Overnight, shortly after midnight, we received thunder showers that passed over, pausing for a couple of hours, and along with the lightning that brought back memories of summer, we also received a few inches of rain. Wind, cooling temperatures and periods of showers that lasted on and off for the whole day, reviving the gales of November.
Thanks to the very dry October, some of the ponds that I walked by two days ago were dry. But with the influx of rains, they now held water. The weather continued to make news and the next day, as I walked in temperatures in the low 30s, I saw ice on ponds and swamps that had none yesterday. Over the next couple days, every pond that I visited was holding this cold cover. Larger bodies of water, the nearby lakes, followed this coating a few days later.
Not only did these wetlands have an ice cover, but subsequent snows blanketed this, too, making it easy to see the ice extent. Within a week, we transitioned from ponds with no water to icy, snow-covered ones. With persistent chilly temperatures, this snow cover may be the one that will continue through the coming cold months.
The new arrival of snow changes the landscape greatly. Most of the snow was dry, but with some rising to the 30s, I found a few sites where the fallen snow on tree branches was sagging off and forming phenomena often called “snow ropes.” I also saw that the active local wildlife left their tracks and marks in the new cover. Deer, squirrels, mice and shrews moved about telling tales of usually unseen activities.
Driving by a swamp during the following days as November was waning, I looked out among the plants of this wetland and noted that besides snow-covered alders, willows, ashes and tamaracks, there was some red. Stopping for a closer look, I could see that these bright colors were due to numerous small red berries. These were the fruits of a small tree or shrub known as winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).
Though related to the well-known American holly (Ilex opaca) of the south, often seen during the holidays, this holly does not have evergreen leaves. Plants grew at the edges of swamps in summer, but with the greens of nearby other small trees, they were not likely noticed. Flowers were tiny and also overlooked.
The surrounding yellow-golds of tamaracks in late October also kept us from seeing this plant. But now the abundant spherical berries, only about one-fourth inch in diameter, cover branches and stand out in this snowy scene.
Years will vary, but this year, the plants are quite common. We are not the only ones to notice this red-berried plant at the swamps, birds also find and devour the berries. Unlike the Christmas holly, I find that the berries of winterberry holly are usually gone by the holiday. But now, they add a touch of red to the white snowy wetlands as we enter this solstice month of December.