Wildflowers in Winter: Introduction and Plants having Large Seedpods

Asclepias syriaca

Common Milkweed in winter

Learning to identify wildflowers from their seedpods is a rewarding bit of detective work. I am happy when I can tell the genus of a particular plant. Whether it is a Milkweed, Goldenrod, Iris, etc. is enough for me. Sometimes when I find a strange seedpod the only way I can figure out what it is, is by returning to the spot during the flowering season and seeing what species are growing there.

Two outstanding books that help to identify winter wildflowers are Winter Wildflowers by Helen V. Smith and Weeds in Winter by Lauren Brown. Smith’s book is currently out of print but Brown’s book with her superb line drawings and a workable identification key has been reprinted under the title Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter.

When I see a winter wildflower the first thing I notice is the growth habit of the plant. Is it short or tall, erect or creeping, how many flowers did it have? Then I examine the plant, are there scars where the flower petals attached? Do dried leaves or their scars remain on the plant? Can you determine if the leaves are opposite, whorled, or alternate (look for leaf scars)? Does the plant have seedpods, heads of seeds, or seeds in long groups? What is the shape of the seedpod, long, pointed, peapod-like, wide, narrow? How many sections does it have? Do any of the flower parts remain? Look at the shape of the seed head. Is it a ball, elongated, pointed? Are the seeds fuzzy, barbed, sticky, smooth? What is the habitat, wet, dry, sunny, woods, fields, dunes?

Here are some of the southeast Michigan winter wildflowers with large pods. By large I mean longer then 25mm [one inch] and a diameter greater than 6mm (1/4 inch).

Asclepias spp. pods and seeds

Milkweed pods and seeds

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) have elongated follicles, seedpods that split along a single line. Follicles can be smooth or warty depending on the species. Seeds are sometimes present into the winter and each seed is comose meaning it possesses a tuft of hair which allows it to float on the breeze.

Baptisia spp. seedpods

Wild Indigo seed pods

Wild Indigo (Baptisia spp.) is a prairie plant that is now being used in native gardens. It is a many-stemmed plant with multiple pods per stem. Diane Ackerman in her wonderful essay collection Dawn Light accurately describes “the indigo’s fat seedpods, each one a plump lady’s leg with a seamed stocking.” Cleanly splitting in half, the plants drop seeds that are at times visible on the snow covered ground.

Hibiscus spp. seedpods

Rose Mallow seedpods

Rose Mallow (Hibiscus spp.) has five-parted seedpods that are hairy on the inside and rough sepals are characters for this plant. It normally grows in wet areas and is about 1m (3 feet) tall. Southern Michigan is at the north edge of its range.

Iris spp. seedpods

Iris seedpods

Iris (Iris spp.) has a three-parted seedpod that is often subtended by a pair of dried bracts. It is found in wet places and is .3-.5m (12-18 inches) tall.

Lilium michiganense

L-R Lily seedpods, seedpod closeup, petal scars, and leaf scars

Lily (Lilium spp.) seedpods resemble Iris seedpods but they have petal-scars under the pod and never have dried bracts. Lilies grow in both wet and dry habitats. Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) is the species in the photograph. The flowers nod but the seedpods straighten as they develop and the mature pods point skyward.

Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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Jack Pine Management

Setophaga kirtlandii

Male Kirtland’s Warbler

In the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula 150000 acres, approximately 235 square miles, of mainly Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) are managed to provide habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). At any given time approximately 38,000 acres are suitable nesting habitat.

After an area is logged, it is furrowed and then planted with 6 inch [15 cm] tall Jack Pine seedlings. Some Oaks (Quercus spp.) and some tall Pines (Pinus spp.) are left to provide perching sites for the warbler’s territorial singing. Jack Pines are not planted in continuous stands but contain grassy openings. Kirtland’s Warblers nest on the ground, normally at the edges of these openings. When the pines are 5-8 feet (2-3m) in height nesting begins. Nesting continues as long as there are branches touching the ground and the branches of adjoining trees. Four to eight years are required for the pines to reach nesting size and they are suitable for nesting for 12-15 years. After another 30 years or so, the forest is cut for pulpwood and the cycle begins again.

Photo by Bob Anderson copyright 2009

Figure 1 Photo by Bob Anderson copyright 2009

Figure no. 1 shows a Kirtland planting at the end of its first year. Furrows are still visible and you can see the tops of seedling Jack Pines. Figure no. 2 shows the same area five years later. Oak #1 has grown but the “pine stand” is mostly unchanged. Kirtland’s Warblers started to nest in the Figure no. 2 stand.

Photo by Dave Bissonette copyright 2014

Figure 2 Photo by Dave Bissonette copyright 2014

Management areas produce habitat for other species. Hill’s Thistle (Cirsium hillii) is a state threatened species. At most two feet [.6m] high it has large, pink, flowers that dot the plantings. Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum) and Sweet-Fern (Comptonia peregrina) also inhabit the areas.  Northern Apple Sphinx Moth larva (Sphinx poecila) feed on Sweet-fern.

Cirsium hillii

Hill’s Thistle

Sphinx poecila

L Northern Apple Sphinx Moth larva R Wood Lily

The Kirtland’s management areas are helping the warbler to recover. It is also altering the landscape, providing homes for a large number of other species.
Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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Hello to Mr. Olson’s class at Coweta High School, Coweta, Oklahoma.