Identifying Plants in Winter
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Wintertime in the north is often seen as barren: birds fly south, animals go into hibernation, plants die or drop their leaves and go dormant. The landscape often looks grey, empty, and bleak. However, for the adventurous naturalist, winter can be as great a time of learning and discovery as other seasons. It is possible to practice plant identification in the winter; in fact, I encourage it! Learning to recognize plants year-round is a valuable skill that helps improve your foraging practice. To that end, I have created a short guide on getting started with winter plant identification! Unfortunately I can’t provide a comprehensive manual to identifying every single plant you’ll find in winter, but I can provide general guidelines and recommend resources to learn more.
Where to Start
Beginning the practice of identifying plants in winter can feel overwhelming. You may feel like you don’t even know where to start. But don’t worry! These few simple techniques will go a long way in helping you develop proficiency.
Divide plants by woody and non-woody. Woody plants such as trees, shrubs, and vines have a few different identification techniques from herbaceous plants.
Get some field guides. If you don’t want to spend a bunch of money, you can try checking out field guides from your local library. You can also look at online field guides. (See recommendations below.)
Read descriptions as well as looking at pictures. You cannot positively identify a plant just by comparing the photo with the real thing. Make sure to thoroughly read the description!
Learn some botanical terms. You don’t need a phD in botany to identify plants in winter, but learning some scientific terms does help! I use scientific terms in this article, but try to explain them in context. One thing to know now is that plants (and other living things) are grouped together according to how closely related they are. The broadest classification is kingdom, which includes plants, fungi, and animals. More relevant to this article are the classifications family, genus, and species. Family is the broadest category of the three, while species is the narrowest. Latin names are written as Genus species; for example, sugar maple is Acer saccharum— Acer is the genus for maples and saccharum is the species.
Observe plants at all time of year. Look closely at all parts: leaves, stem, flowers, fruit, nuts, bark, berries, buds, etc. Some of these parts will change or fall off throughout the year, while others will remain more-or-less consistent. Don’t focus solely on leaves or flowers, which are typically ephemeral.
Take note of the habitat the plant is growing in. Some plants prefer sunny, open fields, while others grow best in marshes, while still others are most common in shady forests. These habitat preferences provide identification clues.
It’s okay to make mistakes! Remember that this is a practice. You’re not expected to be perfect, or to learn all the plants immediately. In fact, I consider plant identification a life-long endeavor! Start with just a few and build from there.
Woody Plants (Trees, Shrubs, Vines)
Woody plants are perhaps the most obvious to practice identifying in the winter. Though leaves fall off of many species, some are evergreen and provide more obvious clues to their identities. Furthermore, some plants that are technically deciduous have leaves that hang on throughout the winter; though brown and crispy, they still provide identification clues. As for everything else, we still have bark, leaf scars, and leaf buds to examine.
Any decent guide to woody plants should have a description of the plant parts listed below, and better ones will have actual photos. You may be able to find a book entirely devoted to one of these parts; for example, there is a book all about tree bark! If you have a general idea of what the plant might be, an internet search should provide written descriptions and images. Just be sure you’re using a trusted site! (See “List of Resources” below for recommendations.)
Did you know that you can identify trees and other woody plants just by the bark? It’s true! Granted, some barks are more distinctive than others, some change dramatically with age, and some will point more toward the family or genus rather than the actual species.
Bark comes in a surprising variety of colors: white, grey, reddish, brown, and nearly black. Some bark is thin and smooth, while other bark is thick and rough. Bark can have horizontal lines, vertical striations, or corky clumps. There is an amazing diversity of characteristics. Recognizing them will take time, observation, and some good field guides.
Evergreen leaves are green even in the winter and stay on the tree throughout the year, often for several years. Woody plants with needle-shaped leaves— commonly just called “needles”— are often evergreen. (Deciduous leaves turn brown and die in the fall, and typically drop from the plant. There are some needle-bearing deciduous species, for example tamarack (Larix laricina) loses its needles in the fall.) There are also broad-leaved evergreen leaves, such as holly, magnolia, and laurel. While there are a few broadleaved evergreen shrubs that grow in Minnesota— such as bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)— most are needle-bearing, so I will focus on those. Here is a list of the genera found in Minnesota and how to distinguish them by their leaves:
Firs (Abies spp.): Balsam fir (A. balsamea) is native to Minnesota, and white fir (A. concolor) is planted ornamentally. The leaves are quite flat, with blunt or notched tips, and often have the appearance of growing in two rows along the twig.
Junipers (Juniperus spp.): Three species of junipers are native to Minnesota, and several cultivars are planted. Common juniper (J. communis) and red cedar (J. virginiana) are the native species that grow in the Twin Cities area. Common juniper has sharp-pointed leaves in whorls of three, and those of red cedar are opposite in twos and scalelike.
Spruces (Picea spp.): Minnesota has two native spruces, white spruce (P. glauca) and black spruce (P. mariana). Colorado spruce (P. pungens) and Norway spruce (P. abies) are also planted. You’re more likely to come across the latter in the Twin Cities area. Leaves are sharp-pointed, roughly rectangular in cross-section, arranged in a spiral on the twig, and borne on a raised, peg-like base.
Pines (Pinus spp.): Three native pines— Jack pine (P. banksiana), White pine (P. strobus), and red pine (P. resinosa)— grow in Minnesota, and several others are planted ornamentally or for timber production. Of the latter, Scots pine (P. sylvestris) is the most common. Pines leaves grow in bunches. White pine has soft needles in groups of five. Other Minnesota species have needles in bundles of two.
Yews (Taxus spp.): Canada yew (T. canadensis) is native to Minnesota, and Japanese yew (T. cuspidata) and a Japanese-European yew hybrid (T. x media) are planted ornamentally. Yew looks like a shrub version of balsam fir, but the leaves of yew are sharply pointed, whereas those of balsam fir are blunt or notched. The flesh of the aril (berry) is edible, but all other parts including the seed are deadly poisonous.
White Cedar (Thuja spp.): Only one species of white cedar grows in Minnesota: northern white cedar (T. occidentalis). Leaves grow in flat sprays.
Hemlocks (Tsuga spp.): One species of hemlock, eastern hemlock (T. canadensis), grows in Minnesota. Leaves grow from peg-like bases, have a prominent midrib on the underside, and are short— about 1/2 inch. Like firs, they are quite flat, with blunt tips, and often have the appearance of growing in two rows along the twig.
General Shape (Silhouette)
Many people don’t realize that trees, shrubs, and vines have their own distinctive shape. It can be difficult to discern this shape when the plants are growing close together in a forest, since they all grow as tall as possible to reach the light. But trees and shrubs growing in parks or other open areas display distinctive silhouettes. Sugar maples (Acer saccharum), for example, have an egg-shaped crown, while firs (Abies spp.) are sharply triangular.
Twigs: Winter Buds, Leaf Scars, Thorns
Twigs are often overlooked by those new to plant identification. However, characteristics like color, texture, hairiness, and thickness can be important to identifying the species. The presence or lack of thorns and their shape and arrangement provides more identification clues. Additionally, deciduous plants display winter buds and leaf scars. Winter buds are small waxy protrusions that contain the baby leaves for the next year. The position of these buds (alternate vs. opposite) is an important identification mark. In addition, the buds are made up of overlapping scales, and the number, color, and texture of the scales aid in identification. Leaf scars are small marks where the leaf stem was attached to the twig, the size and shape of which are distinctive. Within the leaf scars are bundle scars, small holes where the plant’s vascular system attached to the leaf. The number and position of bundle scars vary from plant to plant and provide identification clues.
Hangings-on (Seeds, leaves, fruits)
Several woody plants have parts that hang on throughout the winter, but appear earlier in the year. These include leaves, seeds, and fruits. Leaves can be evergreen (as described above), or brown and crispy deciduous leaves. Even in this desiccated form, the leaves can be gently pulled apart to aid in identification. Fruits and seeds come in myriad shapes, sizes, and colors, and can help determine the family, genus, or species.
Herbaceous plants are a bit less obvious than woody ones during the winter. Many die back completely, leaving nothing behind to mark its presence. Furthermore, without bark or twigs, you are left with fewer parts to aid in identification. However, a fair amount of plants are cold hardy enough to display green leaves throughout the winter— even in Minnesota! Other plants leave behind dried stalks to mark where they once grew.
Leaves (evergreen or cold hardy)
Just as you can find evergreen trees, shrubs, or vines, evergreen herbaceous plants also exist. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is probably the best-known of these that grow in Minnesota. Some plants aren’t technically evergreen, but are cold hardy enough to have green leaves in the dead of winter. You can even find them buried under the snow! Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) are some of the plants that retain green leaves throughout the winter.
When herbaceous plants die back in fall, they sometimes leave a brown, dried-up stalk behind. These desiccated stalks provide clues to the plants’ identification; they may display old crispy leaves, or seed pods, or the seeds themselves. Furthermore, the stem probably shows whether the leaves were placed alternately or opposite each other, which is an important step to identifying a plant.
Maintaining a sit spot has probably been the number one thing to help me grow as a forager, and as a naturalist in general. I first learned about sit spots from the book Animal Tracking Basics by John Young and Tiffany Morgan. Sit spot practices vary from person to person, and the following is based off of their techniques.
What is a sit spot? Basically, you pick a place outdoors where you will sit and observe the environment around you, preferably on a daily basis. It should be a convenient location, but have as large a diversity of natural features as possible. If you live in a rural area, this will probably be pretty easy; but those of us who live in cities may have to settle for a less diverse location. Something near a body of water (lake, creek, pond, river, marsh, etc.), an open field, and a forest is ideal.
You walk to the sit spot from a different direction each day, noting the plants, animals, weather, and other environmental features. You don’t have to know the names of all the plants and animals, you simply have to observe them. If you have time, bring a journal and draw what you see. Don’t worry about making a perfect rendition! The intent is to closely examine the thing you are drawing and cement the image into your mind. When you go home with that image in your journal, you can (hopefully) identify it in a field guide. If it’s a plant, you may have to wait for the it to flower. Or you may need a different field guide. But chances are that sooner or later you’ll find out what the plant is— and you’ll learn much more as you sit and observe it!
When you reach your sit spot, you make yourself comfortable and stay still as long as you can. Some days this might be five minutes, other days it might be two hours. Depending on the location, you may want to stay overnight at times. The aim is to quiet your mind and observe the quality of the landscape around you— the colors, textures, smells, shades, sounds, warmth, cold, humidity, shapes, patterns, etc. Really take note of the little things— the individual blades of grass, the feel of the wind, the color of the soil, the rustle of small animals, the movement of insects.
In time, this practice will help you become more observant. It will also teach you what plants look like all throughout the year. When you return to the same spot on a frequent basis, you get to see— for example— a tree flower, unfurl its leaves, go to seed, fully mature its leaves, drop its seeds, and finally drop its leaves and go dormant. At some point you’ll be able to identify that individual tree, and with time you’ll recognize it in other locations. Eventually, you’ll learn to recognize it just by the bark or the flower or the twig. It takes time, but it’s a worthy practice!
The slowness of the sit spot method stands in stark contrast to the rush of modern life. You can’t cut corners and expect good results. It’s only as good as the time and effort you put into it. That said, with plenty of time and some dedicated effort, you won’t believe the amount you learn.
For more information about sit spots, see here and here. For an in-depth explanation practice, see the book Animal Tracking Basics by John Young and Tiffany Morgan. (As the name implies, it focuses on animal tracking, but is still relevant for plant identification and other naturalist endeavors.)
List of Resources
Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel: Great all-around book for identifying plants by their families.
Eastern Trees by Roger Tory Peterson: Good general guide to tree identification for those of us living in eastern North America.
Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota by Welby R. Smith: An excellent guide to the native trees and shrubs of Minnesota. This is a very large book with high-quality color pictures. It’s also very expensive. Check it out at your local library, if possible.
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb: My go-to field guide for non-woody plant identification. Like most wildflower field guides, this one is based on the actual flower itself, so the plant must be in bloom to properly identify it.
Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald and Lillian Stokes: This is the guide that first piqued my interest in identifying plants by their dead winter stalks. However, it also includes a lot of other information for the curious naturalist, such as abandoned birds’ nests, animal tracks, and evergreen plants.
Winter Tree Finder by May and Tom Watts: I have never actually read this booklet, but at $5-ish it’s a small investment. Reviews indicate that it’s a good beginner’s guide.
Winter Weed Finder: A Guide to Dry Plants in Winter by Dorcas S. Miller: Another booklet that runs at about $5. I haven’t read it, but based on reviews, it looks like a good beginner’s guide.
Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtek: I haven’t read this book and unfortunately can’t find it at my library. However, according to reviews it is an excellent guide for those looking to become more familiar with tree bark.
A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter by Carol Levine: Another book I haven’t actually read, but reviews look excellent. I requested it from the library but unfortunately haven’t received it yet. Update: I got the book! The line drawings are beautiful, but the black-and-white photos are lacking. Thankfully, it’s nearly entirely drawing-based. Plants are supposed to be identified through an illustrated dichotomous key. The drawings are helpful, but keys can be difficult for beginners. However, there is an illustrated glossary in the back to aid newbies with unfamiliar terms. Overall, I’d say it’s a great resource for intermediate and advanced students.
Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter by Lauren Brown: I haven’t been able to find this book at my library, but judging by reviews, it appears to be an excellent guide to identifying plants in winter.
Minnesota Wildflowers: My go-to online guide for wildflower, shrub, vine, and tree identification. High quality color photos, full written descriptions, and additional notes. An excellent resource!
Winter Tree ID Pocket Guide: Free online guide to winter tree identification by Champaign County Forest Preserves.
Identifying Trees by Bark and Buds: Another free online guide to winter tree identification, this one made by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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