Field Notes: Finding Green in the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, Conservation Educator


Central Virginia’s hardwood forests in winter are a study in neutrals; everything is some shade of brown or gray. But look closely at the forest floor, and you’ll see accents of green that hint at spring to come.

Low-sprawling Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) displays its fronds all winter. The plant is so-named not only for its holiday greenery, but for its leaflets, shaped like tiny Christmas stockings.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) has an interesting life cycle. In the fall, each plant grows a single leaf, green on top and purple underneath. The leaf disappears by early summer. A few months later, the flower stalk emerges. The tiny blooms resemble crane-flies, or their familiar cousins – mosquitoes!

Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor).
Running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) often carpets large areas of the forest floor. It isn’t a cedar at all, but a type of club moss. These primitive plants reproduce by spores instead of seeds.

Running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum).
Look for all three of these species brightening the leaf litter in a woodland near you!

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