Winter Wildflowers

by Olivia Lewis, December 4, 2019

When you visit an open woodland or roadside in the Ragged Mountains of Virginia during the summer, a variety of woodland wildflowers assail you with color. Bright golden Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) and Crownbeard (Verbesina occidentalis) flowers, yellow Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), green Lespedeza (Lespedeza species) and plumes of Goldenrod (Solidago species) grow in open patches and on the edge of the woods. The White Snakeroot is a lovely wildflower. Though, it is responsible for the notorious “milk sickness” of pioneer days, when foraging dairy cows ventured into woodlands and nibbled its toxic leaves. The aptly named Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) can be found on moist stream banks, while Whorled Coreopsis grows sparsely, attracting native pollinators.

As a winter visitor, one may assume the area is now desolate. The colorful wildflowers have disappeared and the forest floor appears bare and brown. Looking closer, however, you can find the remnant winter stalks of each of these wildflowers. More amazing still, is that it’s entirely possible to recognize each species by the unique characteristics of its withered winter stem. Each is a mystery, moreso because wildflower guidebooks do not show you how to recognize these plants in winter. But the winter remnants of flowers, interspersed with evergreen plants including the orchids Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) and Cranesfly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), present their own beauty. The remnant of Wingstem looks silvery, while the underside of the leaf of the Cranesfly Orchid is a vibrant purple.

Identifying wildflowers in winter can fast become an engrossing hobby, as the mystery of connecting the winter attire of these wildflowers with their more showy summer apparel draws you in.

Image at top: Golden Crownbeard (Verbesina occidentalis). All photos by Olivia Lewis.