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Heads out of the covers; winter plant seeds

The dried stalk and seed pods of a swamp milkweed appear above the deep snow cover, providing an opportunity to discover more about the natural world in winter. Various species of plants have tall flower spikes visible now in our region's open fields and wetlands.
The dried stalk and seed pods of a swamp milkweed appear above the deep snow cover, providing an opportunity to discover more about the natural world in winter. Various species of plants have tall flower spikes visible now in our region's open fields and wetlands.

It’s an understatement to say that this winter so far has been a very snowy one. And it may seem that there is little to observe in our natural world right now. But a snowshoe trek around wetlands and meadows reveals an interesting and important part of the life cycle of certain plants. Rising above the blanket of white are the stalks and seed heads of plants that have evolved to disperse their seeds in the late fall and winter.

Although these plants represent a variety of plant families, they have several things in common. They have taken advantage of the ample sunlight in open areas such as fields and wetlands and they disperse their seeds from these tall stalks.

Two types of dispersal methods are used. One is by the strong winds in these open areas and the other is by animals, (including humans). One of the most familiar plants to take advantage of wind dispersal is the milkweed.

The most common, and perhaps the most annoying, plant to use dispersal by animal is the burdock. The large, round seed heads feature re-curved hooks that attach to fur, or to clothing — allegedy the inspiration for Velcro. By pulling on the burrs, you tear open the sheath covering the seeds, releasing them to the world.

Here are some of the plants you may discover:

Milkweeds (Asclepias species)
Common milkweed is a familiar plant in gardens and fields. The swamp milkweed is a native species found in wet areas and along shorelines. In late fall, the large seed pods open to release silken parachutes suspending dark seeds. These parachutes help carry the seeds to new areas. In the winter, the grey, narrow, oval seedpods often still have some of the silken “parachutes” attached adding to the unusual architecture of this plant.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
The winter seed stalk of the evening primrose is just one of the fascinating aspects of this native wildflower. The winter fruit is almond-shaped and unfurls into four sections at the opened end, looking like the curled petals of a dried flower. Each of the sections contains two rows of loose seeds. Shaking the stalk will release the seeds, which will look like coffee grounds. These seeds are eaten by a variety of birds such as finches.

Goldenrods (Solidago species)
There are many species of goldenrod, many with stalks tall enough to be seen above the snow. The tiny seeds are much sought after by a variety of hungry birds including finches and sparrows. Uneaten seeds are dropped on the snow to be blown to new areas by the wind. One of the most fascinating and visible features of goldenrods are the galls that appear as round swellings about halfway up the stalks. In  summer, insects larvae chew into the goldenrod stalks, causing a reaction that forces the plant to grow a protective gall. The hatched larvae feed inside the gall through the winter, without harming the host plant. Another type of gall, called the bunch gall, forms at the tip of the stalk and looks like a woody flower.

Dock (Rumex species)
Dock is perhaps the most striking of the winter weeds with its deep red-brown seeds in spiked clusters on a curved stem.

As a member of the buckwheat family, dock has the distinctive triangular seeds of this family. Each seed is encased in three heart-shaped, folded leaves. A protective coating covers the seeds so that when they are eaten by animals, they are not completely digested and are dispersed in the animal’s feces. This is another clever and effective way to spread seed to a new location.

There are many other plants to make note of this time of year for those willing to take the time to stop and observe. Woody shrubs may still have dried fruit on them, deciduous trees have distinctive buds to help identify the different species, and evergreens are a welcome sight of green in the winter landscape.

Gayle Carlyle is a volunteer with the Couchiching Conservancy which now protects more than 11,000 acres of special natural land.