By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader
Photos by David Smith; Plant Information by Janet Ebert
Birders have their Christmas Bird Counts. Lepidopterists have their 4th of July Butterfly Count. Astronomers have their Star Parties. Herpetologists have their reptile round-ups and calling frog surveys. Why should botanists miss out on the fun!
This is why we created the New Year’s Plant Count as an annual program offered by the Delaware Nature Society. Led by Botanist Janet Ebert each year just after the champagne bottles have been recycled and confetti swept up after New Year’s parties. This year the count was held at the Society’s headquarters, Ashland Nature Center. The goal is to find and list as many plant species as can be found in a 3-hour walk.
Any plant counts for the Count, including trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, moss, ferns, and others. You might wonder why this is done in January. Most of the plants are present in one form or another, even though some might be a withered, brown stem that was a colorful, vibrant wildflower just months ago. Perhaps it is the challenge of identifying these species at this stage of their existence. Perhaps it is the anticipation of the coming spring and the need to prove that you can still see an awful lot of life, even in the middle of winter. For instance, even though we are months from spring beauties blooming in local woodlands, the counters found green leaves of the plant poking above ground last week, getting a head start on photosynthesis for the year.
Many alien plants are green and growing, and sometimes blooming in the middle of winter. Most of these are annuals or bienniels, whereas most of our native herbaceous plants are perennials, and are safely dormant underground until at least late March. This is a good time of year to spot the weedy non-native plants in your garden or yard…some of them are growing already!
There are some native evergreen plants in our area, however, and the photo above shows two of them. The tree clubmoss is not a moss, but a primitive, vascular, non-flowering, spore-producing plant related to ferns. The striped wintergreen to its right is a sub-shrub (I like that term) related to blueberry bushes. Both of these grown in dry, bare soil within forests.
The skunk cabbage above (not a cabbage, but an Arum, related to Jack-in-the-pulpit), was found on the New Year’s Plant Count, and was blooming. A participant stuck their finger in the spadix, (hood that holds the flower), and some pollen rubbed off on them.
Another strange native plant that was found was a species of dodder (Cucuta sp.) that had the group scratching their heads as to its identity. This parasitic plant starts its life innocently enough…sprouting from a seed on the ground. Before long, however, it wraps its spaghetti-like yellow stringers around the stems of other plants, stealing nutrients from them, and detaching itself from the ground. There are 5 species of dodder in the Delaware Piedmont, and Janet was pretty sure this was not the common type.
Winter appreciation of plants many times simply has to do with form and structural beauty rather than naming species. The delicate swirling strands of a willow-herb (Epilobium coloratum) are really long seed pods that are split open, whose seeds have long since floated away on the wind.
Register for this program next January to get out and appreciate the winter plant scene with professional botanist Janet Ebert. Like botany? Try the upcoming programs…Winter Identification of Trees and Shrubs March 4, Spring Wildflower Walk and Brunch April 24, and the Susquehanna Wildflower Adventure April 30.
Also, visit David Smith’s Delaware Wildflowers website, which is filled with great photos of our native plants.