Friday, February 27, 2015

Sketchbook snapshot: Winter green...evergreen, that is

If you're somewhere where warm snaps don't come until the spring thaw, there are a lot of things about winter in the north that could get you down - loads of snow, horrifically cold weather, violent wind gusts that blast through even the warmest gear, and no end in sight.

Deciduous willows and other shrubs mingle with evergreens on
the shore of a great ice-fishing lake in Montana's Rocky Mountains.

In my corner of the West, we've been having a mix of bitter cold and snowy weather interspersed with unseasonably warm temperatures. While the warm-ups make it much easier for me to dig into the compost pile, the widely variable temperatures make life challenging for a lot of plants. 

After spotting a bunch of green grass, buried under several feet of snow, which I uncovered while cutting firewood a few weeks back, I've been pondering plants that stay green even in the depths of winter. 

There's a lot out there, underneath the snow and towering overhead, that remains verdant all winter long. Some of these plants are fairly obvious - evergreen trees such as pine, larch, cedar, and hemlock brighten up otherwise monochromatic white, gray, and brown scenes.

Another easy-to-overlook evergreen, cacti, such as this one I photographed after a
New Year's Eve snowstorm in Tucson, remain evergreen throughout the winter.
And yes, in higher elevations, even the desert can experience 'true winter.'

In addition, a hardy handful of plants, including holly, Oregon grape, and even some ferns, make it through the winter with their chlorophyll intact.

This week's column 
In the syndicated column I write, I've highlighted two such plants - mistletoe and common juniper - whose evergreenness is actually tangential to the lengthy and complex histories they've shared with humankind. 

The following illustrations accompany the column, which is available to subscribers of publications running Drawn to the West as a syndicated column. 

"Juniper 'berries' are in fact waxy blue seed cones. They can persist on the plant for up to three years, unless birds eat them. These same berries are well-known in culinary, medicinal, and cocktail circles, and have been since the Babylonian era. Indeed, the berries have been used wherever the plant occurs – it is the most widespread woody plant on the planet [...]"
"The mistletoe under which hopeful romantics loiter at Christmastime is actually a complicated plant with an extensive history. A great many species exist in the Santalaceae family, a group of hemiparasitic plants which derive most of their nutrients and all of their water from host plants."
If you'd like to read the column, let your local newspaper or magazine editor know you want to see an illustrated version of the West in their publication!

The following links lead to bonus material - some of the content I read while preparing the article, as well as a few items just for fun.
  • This two-page worksheet from the Denver Botanical Garden includes a 'meet an evergreen' activity and several suggestions for winter reading and other kids' activities. Judging by the 'roasted roots' recipe, adults will likely enjoy the ideas, too.
  • A Montreal Botanical Garden booklet - Trees as living beings – coordinates with the arboretum interpretive trail and explores the myriad complexities of life as a tree.
  • This how-to properly prune evergreens booklet is another MBG resource which looks highly useful for anyone dealing with overgrown evergreens.
  • See the references, further reading, and external links sections of this Wikipedia entry for detailed information about common juniper, including cultivation and uses.
  • Just for fun: If you're looking for an entertaining explanation of conifers, '"C" is for Conifers' by They Might Be Giants. The 2-minute 50-second-long tune outlines basic ways to identify coniferous trees and provides a delightfully illustrated tour of some of the 500 conifer species that exist today.

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