The trees are bare and the flowers are gone but I won't stop going outdoors just because the growing season is over.
There's still a lot to see in winter. The herbaceous plants have become interesting identification challenges.
Have you ever seen a brown plant skeleton and wondered what it was? I have and I'd like to learn more, so today I'm beginning a Wednesday series on identifying weeds in winter.
I mentioned this idea to Marcy Cunkelman and she was already on top of it with a collection of photographs from her garden. Marcy knows her winter weeds because she doesn't clear her garden in the fall. If you haven't cleared yours yet, don't do it! Leave the flowers standing. (I'll tell you why next week.)
Before we begin, here are some tips that will help you identify winter weeds. These are expanded from a great book that has helped me a lot: Weeds in Winter, written and illustrated by Lauren Brown, W. W. Norton, 1976. The book has pen-and-ink drawings of the weeds and a helpful key system based on these fieldmarks:
- Smell the plant. This is a great clue. Crush the fruit, seeds, leaves or stem. If it smells like mint, it's in the mint family. If it smells like parsley or carrots it's in the parsley family. Smoky smell is the daisy family, burning rubber smell is the tomato family. The list goes on.
- Look at the leaves. How are they arranged on the stalk? Opposite each other or alternate? Wrapping the stem or freestanding? Rough or smooth? Note their shape, if still recognizable.
- Look at the stem. Is it fuzzy? Smooth? Shiny? Thorny? Rough? Triangular? Square?
- Notice where the plant is growing (if it isn't in a garden). In a swamp? On a dry hillside? In a meadow or a forest? By a road?
- Are similar plants nearby? Your individual plant may be damaged or imperfect but similar plants will provide the characteristics of the species.
- Look at it thoroughly. Sometimes the seed pod is your best clue, as we will see today.
So, to begin.
Our first "Winter Weed" is Purple-headed Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Its skeleton stands two to five feet high on a sturdy, rough stem. Its leaves are alternate on the stem, toothed, egg-shaped and very rough on both sides like fine sandpaper. As far as I can tell, it doesn't smell.
When the flower first bloomed the central disk was flat but as the flower matures the disk rises into a cone. In winter the seed cone looks like a bristly thistle, but don't expect it to look that way for long. American goldfinches love these seeds and will cling to the stem to pick them off.
The goldfinches already ate half of Marcy's coneflower seeds. Now you can see the cone.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)