View All Feb 25, 2015

Found on the Greenway: Evergreen Flowering Plants

By Chris Bolling

During the winter, evergreen conifers really stand out and it is easy to think those are the only evergreen plants in the Piedmont forests. There are, however, several broadleaf evergreen plants in the woods and this is a good time of year to find them.

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a very common evergreen plant in the Piedmont. It is a slow growing plant that can be found in sizes ranging from a low bush to a medium sized tree. The distinctive leaves with sharp spines are leathery and thick and the bright red berries are familiar to many people. The plant and its many cultivars are used extensively in landscaping. The plant grows slowly in the under story of the forest but if it gets exposed to sunlight it can attain the size of a tree. The flowers on a single plant are either all male or all female and only a plant with female flowers will produce berries. In the winter it is easier to spot this plant in the forest.

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'American Holly' Photographer Jim Bogenschneider

A commonly seen herbaceous on the forest floor is Heartleaf or Little Brown Jugs (Hexastylis arifolia). The 2 to 6 inch arrow-shaped leaves can be found on the forest floor amongst the leaf litter. In early spring, the plant will produce small jug-shaped flowers beneath the leaves. The flowers are pollinated by beetles and the seeds are dispersed by ants. The seeds have a rich food body (called an elaiosome) attached to the seed coat. The ants take the seed back to the nest and consume the food body and then discard the seed which later germinates near the ant colony where it has been discarded. Many small plants of the forest floor use this strategy to disperse their seeds. This interesting plant is more conspicuous in the winter when there are fewer other plants on the forest floor.

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'Heartleaf' Photographer: Jim Bogenscheider

Another evergreen plant of the forest floor is the Striped Wintergreen or Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculate). In the late spring this plant produces a small white flower at the end of a stalk well above the low-lying leaves.  The flower faces downward at the end of the stalk but after the flower is pollinated, the flower turns 180 degrees and faces upward. The fruit develops at the end of the stalk and the seeds are distributed by wind and gravity.

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'Striped Evergreen' Photographer: Jim Bogenschneider

An interesting plant that is sometimes easier to see in the winter than any other time of year is the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularoa discolor). Each plant produces a single annual elliptical leaf that is green on the top and purple underneath in the fall that withers by the late spring. In the summer the flowers are produced at the end of a long stalk 8 to 26 inches high. The flowers are small and purplish green to brown in color and are hard to see in the summer against the background of the busy summer forest. In winter, however, the green leaves stand out against the brown color of the forest floor making this native orchid easier to find.

Sometimes in the winter it is easy to imagine the forests and fields as dead places waiting for the coming of spring. The pines and junipers look like the only green plants around. However, there are still interesting plants to see and some that are overlooked in Spring and Summer when the mass of green leaves come out. Come out to the Anne Springs Close Greenway today to see these and other interesting plants in the winter time forest. 

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