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Wood ferns are still green

A leaf (frond) of a wood fern. Photo by Larry Weber1 / 2
A growth wood ferns, still green in the "AutWin" woods of November. Photo by Larry Weber2 / 2

The woods of November are a great place to wander through. Gone are the hot days — not yet too cold and we don't deal with annoying insects. After the leaf drop and before the snow cover; the autumn interlude that I like to call "AutWin" prevails now.

The woods are open; with the lack of arboreal foliage, we can see far into the trees that surround us.

It is a fine time and place to wander through, but the forest of November is quite bare and monotone. The gray bark of trees blends with the covering of brown leaves on the forest floor.

But this bland landscape is broken in many places by other colors. Green conifers — mostly pines, spruces and balsam — stand among the deciduous trees. Some red oaks, ironwoods and sugar maples are retaining their brown leaves.

Red berries of highbush cranberry (actually a tree — a viburnum) are easy to see as are the reds of winterberry holly in the wetter sites. And I find several crab apples loaded with fruits, red or yellow. Looking a bit lower, usually near the ground, I find plenty of other plants that are still green.

Not all the forest flora turns brown at this time. At the base of many trees (in some locations, almost every tree), are thick growths of small leafy mosses. At first, they all look alike, but a closer inspection shows several species growing here.

Bark on these same trees are the home of lichens, once again appearing on nearly every tree. Gray seems to be the dominant color, but some are also bluish, yellow and even red. On the ground with the brown leaves, I find a couple of flowering plants that blossomed earlier in the season, but keep their green leaves: hepatica (flowering in spring) and pyrola (blooming in summer).

Nearby, among the tree roots, are taller club mosses. Often attached underground by rhizomes, these "princess pines" (lycopodium) can make a rather thick growth at some sites. Despite the name, they are not mosses, but related to ferns — a few of which are present at these sites as well. And one kind, the wood fern, is still green.

Ferns are common in Northland woods. A diligent search could locate nearly 20 kinds on a summer walk, but I find about a dozen species are most common.

Not flowering plants, they typically have leaves (fronds) rising up from a subterranean stem (rhizome). The fronds are often shaped like feathers. Lush and green, some grow quite tall in the wet and warm summer. With the shorter days and cool temperatures, most of them turn brown and drop to the ground. Wood ferns grow here with the ones of summer. With spreading fronds, they reach one to two feet high; not the tallest. Like most of the other ferns, it produces its reproductive spores on the undersides of the fronds in minute capsules called sori. But unlike other ferns of the forest at this time, wood ferns remain green and frequently stay upright as the fall and cold moves in.

It is always a delight to walk through the woods at this time and locate these still-green wood ferns. Perhaps with the sunlight now reaching their growing sites, they will persist longer than the others. Wood ferns will keep green until the snow cover and beyond.

I have often seen these greens beneath the snow and some are even green in the following spring. Now, they are an attractive addition to see as we wander the "AutWin" woods.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o krohman@duluthnews.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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