Which trees keep their dried leaves throughout the winter?

Fagus grandifolia

American Beech in winter

A winter walk through a woods in Michigan will reveal deciduous trees holding their dried leaves from last fall. Marcescence is the technical term for plant parts that wither but do not fall off. It can refer to leaves, flowers, or fruit. In deciduous leaves an abscission layer forms at the base of the petiole (leaf stem). In most deciduous leaves the abscission layer hardens on the twig side in the fall, the leaves drop-off, and this layer protects the bud-scar on the twig. In marcescent leaves, the abscission layer does not function until buds break in the spring. Andrew Hipp at The Morton Arboretum explains this in greater detail.

Some species are more marcescent than others. Oaks, Beeches, Hornbeams, and Hop-hornbeams commonly hold their leaves. Younger trees exhibit marcesence more often than mature trees. Stress from drought or disease can cause marcescence in any deciduous species .

The color of the winter leaves is normally distinctive but hard to describe. With a little practice you can learn to identify these trees at a distance. Of course, looking at the shape of the leaf, winter bud, or the bark can confirm your identification.

Fagus grandifolia

American Beech leaves in winter

Marcescent leaves on American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) bleach from tan to a ghostly cream-color during the winter. Looking closely at a twig you will see long buds that confirm the identification.

Ostrya virginiana

Hop-Hornbeam leaves and winter bud

Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)  has winter leaves that tend to curl. Once again, with practice the color is distinctive. Blue-beech or Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is similar to Hop-hornbeam but with lighter brown leaves.

Carpinus caroliniana

Blue-beech winter leaves

Oaks (Quercus spp.), especially the Black Oak group (subg. Erythrobalanus), tend to hold their leaves. Some years ago, when Dr. Warren Wagner was studying Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria) we learned to identify the species when we drove by. Shingle Oak leaves are tan or “potato-brown color.” Other oak species have a darker, reddish-brown color. Shingle Oak is Michigan’s only simple-leaved oak. Its leaves look more like bay leaves than what we in the north think a “typical” oak leaf should resemble.

Shingle Oak – L                                                                     Pin Oak – R

It is fun to walk through a winter woodlot and identify the leaf-holding species. In Tenhave Woods, in Royal Oak, you can see where the ridges run through the woods by looking at the location of the Beech trees. Hornbeams ring the low swamp forest. Winter often is the best time to get an overview of an area when you can see farther and having the ability to identify some species from a distance is helpful.

Copyright 2017 by Donald Drife

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Wildflowers in Winter: Plants Having Elongated Seedheads

Here are some of the Michigan winter wildflowers with elongated seedheads.

Onoclea sensibilis

Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) does not have seedpods but sporophylls. They form a beadlike structure in parallel rows that persist throughout the winter. The spores are released in springtime. It occurs throughout the state.

Chelone glabra

White Turtlehead

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) seedpods do resemble a turtle’s head. Opposite leaves, a dense spike with the seedpods in rows distinguish this species. It is 1-2 feet (.3-.6m) tall. It occurs throughout the state.



Thimbleweed has cottony seed heads at the end of the stems. There are two species in Michigan, one (Anemone cylindrica) with narrow seedheads and a second species (A. virginiana)with broader seedheads. It is often not possible to separate the two species in the winter. Both species occur throughout the state. A. virginiana is the species in the photographs.

Verbena hastata

Blue Vervain

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) has narrow terminal spikes, squarish stems, and opposite leaves. It is 2-4 (.6-1.2m) feet tall. It occurs throughout the state.

Agastache nepetoides

Yellow Giant Hyssop

Yellow Giant Hyssop (Agastache nepetoides) has broader terminal clusters than Blue Vervain. It has squarish stems and opposite leaves. It occurs in Michigan south of the Bay City to Muskegon line. It is now appearing in plantings of native plants.



Teasel has a spiny stem and a head surrounded by curved brackets. It is 3-10 feet (1-3m) tall. There are two species in Michigan: Wild Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), and Cut-leaf Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus). See my August 2014 blog for more info. They often cannot be distinguished in the winter. Both species occur throughout the state but are more common south of the Bay City to Muskegon line.

Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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Wildflowers in Winter: More Plants Having Small Seedpods

Here are some of the other southeast Michigan winter wildflowers with small pods. By small I mean shorter then 13mm [1/2 inch] and a diameter less than 6mm (1/4 inch).

Hypopitys monotropa


Pinesaps (Hypopitys monotropa) is also called (Monotropa hypopithys). Upward pointing styles and a loose spike are the characters of this species. Pinesaps are leafless plants that live off of tree roots that they attach to via a fungus. The fancy term is myco-heterotrophic  plants. The flowers hang down but as the seedpods develop they turn upward.

Gentiana andrewsii

Closed or Bottled Gentian

Closed or Bottled Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) in the winter is just like the flowers but without the color. It is difficult to identify the Closed Gentian group to species when they are flowering. The seedpod shown here was from a colony that I identified when it flowered in the fall so I know which species it is. Opposite leaves and the distinct seedpod shape identify this as part of the Closed Gentian group.

Gentiana andrewsii

Closed or Bottled Gentian

Orchids have distinctive 6 parted seedpods. Hanging from the end of the capsule are the dried up petals and sepals. Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is commonly encountered even in the city. See blog posting from August 2013. Its leafy spike with many seedpods is distinctive.

Cypripedium acaule Epipactis helleborine

L-Pink Lady-slipper R-Broad-leaved Helleborine

Lady-slippers have large capsules and when in seed the species are identified based size, habitat and leaf remnants or leaf scars. Pink Lady-slipper or Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule) has a single seedpod on a stem without leaf scars.  I know of pinewoods where 1000’s of plants bloom and only a dozen plants set seed.

Verbascum blattaria

Moth Mullein

Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) has 5mm (3/16 inch) diameter spherical seedpods on short, curved, upward pointing pedicels. Pedicels are the stalks that support individual flowers or seedpods on an inflorescence. Dried clasping leaves often remain along the main stem.
Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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Wildflowers in Winter: Plants Having Small Seedpods

Here are some of the southeast Michigan winter wildflowers with small pods. By small I mean shorter then 13mm [1/2 inch] and a diameter less than 6mm (1/4 inch).

Berteroa incana

Hoary Alyssum

Hoary Alyssum (Berteroa incana) has a small, see-through, flat, pod with an elongate tip. Normally some of the hairs remain along the stem. It is seldom taller than 30cm (12 inches). The seeds are in a simple raceme. A raceme is a flowering spike where the individual flowers are on short, unbranched stems of equal lengths.

Lepidium virginicum


Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) has flat, two seeded pods that are notched at the tip. Nine species in this genus occur in Michigan and can be identified  by the shape of the seedpod. Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers illustrates several species. The dense raceme is characteristic of this genus.

Hypericum perforatum

Common St. John’s-wort

Common St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) has  seedpods arranged in a cyme which is central flowering stalk that ends at a group of flowers and has branched side stalks from the central stalk. Seedpods are open at one end and have three elongated thread-like tips.

Penstemon digitalis

Foxglove Beard-tongue

Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) has seedpods that are narrower than Common St. John’s-wort and the tips on the seedpods are not as narrow. The number of tips varies from three to five. The seedpods are acute.

Oenothera spp

Evening Primrose

Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) has a narrow seedpod that splits into four sections. They are arranged in a simple raceme. The plants can be 2m (6 feet) tall.
Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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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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Michigan Pines

Pinus strobus banksiana resinosa sylvestris

Pine needles: l-r White, Jack, Red (Black similar), Scots

Michigan has three native species of Pine trees and two widely established non-native species. Two additional species have been recorded in the Michigan Flora database but currently they rarely escape. They are Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) and Ponderosa Pine (P. ponderosa). Both of these species have needles in groups of three.

Pinus strobus White Pine

White Pine

White Pine (P. strobus) is native and easy to recognize with its needles in groups of five. They are fine, soft needles. Its cones are three times as long as they are wide. This is the state tree of Michigan. This was the preferred pine species during Michigan’s lumber era, because it occurred in pure stands and floated well.

Pinus banksiana cones

Jack Pine: Pollen cones l, Seed cones r

Jack Pine (P. banksiana) is native occurring mostly north of Saginaw but coming south along the Lake Michigan coast to the state line. It has two, 2-4 cm (3/4” to 1 1/2”) long needles in each cluster. They are normally twisted. Its bark is dark red to dark gray and at times looks as if it is covered by burnt corn flakes. Bent cones are another distinguishing character of this tree. It is often stated that fire is required to open the cones but I commonly see open cones hanging on trees.

Pinus banksiana Jack Pine

Jack Pine

It is among young Jack Pines that Kirtland’s Warblers nest. This is a short-lived species; a sixty year old Jack Pine is ancient whereas a sixty year old Red or White Pine is still a teenager. Jack Pine is normally a small tree, reaching 15 m (50 feet) in height. I watched one Jack Pine for a decade that crept along the ground, never reaching more than 1 m (3 feet) in height but becoming 5 m (16 feet) long before it died.

Pinus banksiana l_Pinus sylvestris r

Jack Pine background left, Scots Pine foreground left and right

Pinus sylvestris  Scots Pine

Scots Pine

Scots Pine or Scotch Pine (P. sylvestris) is a Eurasian species that has been planted extensively in Michigan. Mature trees have a distinct reddish-orange bark in the upper tree trunk. The needles are similar to Jack Pines making immature trees difficult to separate. I hit my palm against the end of the needles and if they feel sharp then it is a Scots Pines. The needles are sometimes glaucous (with a waxy bloom) and tend to be slightly longer than Jack Pine needles. Cones on Scots Pines are straight and open in the second year.

Pinus nigra bark l P. resinosa c P. resinosa r

l-r Black Pine bark, Red Pine bark, Red Pine branch and cone

Red Pine (P. resinosa) is a native growing mostly north of Flint. It has two, 10-15 cm (4” to 6”) long needles in each cluster. When bent the needles break. This species has reddish-brown winter buds. Its common name comes from the flaky, reddish upper bark. Stumps, 110 years old, dot the field at our cabin near Grayling. Red Pines normally occur in mixed stands with Oaks (Quercus sp), Cherries (Prunius sp) or White Pine. They were lumbered later than the pure stands of White Pine.

Pinus nigra l P. resinosa r winter bud

Terminal buds l-r Black Pine (with first-year cone), Red Pine

Pinus nigra l P. resinosa r

cones l-r Black Pine (turned upside-down to show prickle), Red Pine

Black Pine or Austrian Pine (P. nigra) is an European species that is widely planted in the Great Lakes Region. The needles are similar to Red Pine but they are flexible. This species has black bark and appears denser having more needle clusters and branches than a Red Pine. Its winter buds are whitish and sticky. Black Pine cones have prickles on their umbos and Red Pines have flattened umbos. An umbo is the shield-like structure on a pine cone’s scale. Black Pine cones are yellowish-green before they open.

Pinus nigra  Black Pine

Black Pine

Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Spruces (Picea)

Spruces have needles less than 20mm (3/4 inch) long with square cross-sections. They never occur in bunches, just one needle per node. They can be confused with Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) but Firs have needles with flattened cross-sections. If you can roll a needle in your fingertips then it is a spruce.

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Michigan has two native spruces, Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and White Spruce (P. glauca). Norway Spruce (P. abies) is now naturalized into the state.

Picea mariana branchlets

Black Spruce Branchlets

Picea mariana pegs and cones

Black Spruce pegs and cones

Black Spruce has needles shorter than 16mm (5/8 inch) and densely pubescent, meaning furry, first year branchlets. The needle bases, which sit on a peg-like projection, are difficult to see. These peg-like projections stick out at 90 degrees to the twig. If cones are present, they are about as wide as they are long. In southern Michigan, Black Spruce grows only in cool bogs. North of Bay City, it will also grow in upland forests and interdunal swales. Even in the north, it prefers a damp habitat and often occurs with Tamarack (Larix laricina) and White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). The common name refers to the dark needles this tree normally has.

Picea glauca needles and cone

White Spruce needles and cone

White Spruce has needles that are normally longer than 16mm (5/8 inch) and hairless first year branchlets. The needle bases are easily seen. The peg-like projections  point forward at approximately 60 degrees from the twig. Cones are two to three times longer than wide. The tree’s native range is north of West Branch. It grows in similar habitats as Black Spruce but will also thrive in drier locations. The common name refers to the waxy layer on the young needles.

Picea abies needles and cone

Norway Spruce needles and cone

The native range of Norway Spruce is central and northern Europe. It is escaping throughout Michigan. The branchlets droop and its cones are large, approximately 130mm (5 inch) long. Norway Spruce is commonly planted and beginning to escape into natural areas. Its needles are stiff and have rows of minute openings properly called stomata.

Picea abies stomata

Norway Spruce stomata

Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

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Balsam Fir and Hemlock in Michigan

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Balsam Fir, (Abies balsamea) is a common conifer in northern Michigan. It often grows with Aspen (Populus grandidentata & P. tremuloides), Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), or Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera). It is also found in White Cedar (Thuja) swamps and bogs. Often the needles form flat branchlets but the needles can encircle a branch, resembling a spruce (Picea) branchlet. When I began to look for spruce trees to photograph I was surprised to find that many of the stands I thought were spruce actually were Balsam Fir with their needles encircling the twigs. Spruces have square needle cross-sections and Balsam Firs have rectangular cross-sections. The needle scar, that is the mark left on the twigs when the needle falls off, is round on the Balsam Fir. Its needles fall and leave a clean branch. Spruces leave rough projections along the branchlets after the needles fall. Balsam Firs tend to hold their dead needles on older branches and spruces shed their needles. Balsam Fir has distinctive pitch filled pockets under the surface of its bark.

Abies balsamea Branchlet and Bark

Balsam Fir Branchlet and Bark

Abies balsamea Balsam Fir Needles

Balsam Fir Needles

Although I spend much of my field time in the range of Balsam Fir, I seldom see it producing cones. Perhaps they are produced at the tops of tall firs and I miss them. The cones fall apart, dehisce is the technical term, while still attached to the branches, so no cones fall to the forest floor. I often see seedling Balsam Firs so they must be producing cones.

Tsuga canadensis Branchlet Stomata Cones

Eastern Hemlock Branchlet, Stomata, and Cones

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is common north of Bay City and rarer in southern Michigan where it will grow in a protected hollow or ravine. In the north, it will grow with hardwood trees, White Pine, or in pure stands. Hartwick Pines State Park has an elevated, barrier free, “treetop” walkway leading into its Forest Center. The walkway leads through a nice Hemlock and American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) woods. I enjoy walking through the treetops and peering into the canopy. I photographed the Hemlock cones from this platform.

The needles are short, normally less than 13mm (1/2 inch), blunt, with a few teeth toward the tip. They are dark green above and have a white stripe on the lower surface. The white stripe is actually composed of minute openings in the leaf called stomata. These openings allow the plant to “breath.” Hemlocks also have needles that lay on the twig, with their lower surface pointing up. The needles appear to occur in flattened clusters but actually are produced from around the twig. The leaves bend, giving the branch its characteristic flattened look.

Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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Trees with Whorled Buds

Catalpa speciosa

Catalpa speciosa

Catapla speciosa fruit

Catapla speciosa fruit

Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is our only escaped tree with whorled buds. The rounded leaf-scars distinguish this from the occasional maple or ash twig that is whorled. A second Catalpa species (Catalpa bignonioides) is planted in Michigan, but has not been documented as escaping. The seeds are the best way to distinguish the two species in the winter. C. bignonioides has pointed fringes at the ends of the seeds and in C. speciosa the fringes are rounded and wide.


Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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Alternate Trees Armed




Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a small tree with round reddish or brownish lateral buds. The thorns are sharp. Voss and Reznicek list 29 species in this genus from Michigan but many are only shrubs.

Gleditsia triacanthos




Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is a rare native in found in southern Michigan. It is planted widely including a thornless form (f. intermis). The twigs and trunk are armed with branched thorns. The terminal bud is absent and the lateral buds are hidden under the twig’s epidermis. Most trees will have a few seedpods that look like long, dark, flat, peapods (it is in the Fabaceae, Pea Family).

Malus coronaria

Wild Crab Apple


Wild Crab Apple (Malus coronaria), also called Sweet Crab, or American Crab is similar to Hawthorn. The buds are pointed and the thorns are blunt pointed. The thorns normally have leaf scars.



Robinia pseudoacacia

Black Locust


Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is not native to Michigan but widely planted and escaped. The terminal bud is absent and each lateral bud scar has a pair of stipular spines. The reddish buds are partially hidden by the epidermis.


Voss, Edward G. and Anton Reznicek. (2012). Field Manual of Michigan Flora. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Crataegus on pp.811-819)
Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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