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Seeing wildflowers in late February

An evening primrose with empty pods in winter. The plant bloomed last summer. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
An aster from last summer as it looks now in the snow of late February. Note some fluffy seeds are still on the plant. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

By this date in February, the pace of season changes quicken. We may still be cold with a snowpack of a foot or two on the ground, but the days are changing. As of Feb. 18 we have 10 1/2 hours of daylight, which will extend to 11 hours by the end of the month. The vernal equinox is now about a month away. On Feb. 22 we started having a sunrise before 7 a.m. for the first time in about four months. We will begin daylight saving time in just three weeks.

I was looking at the February scene while walking on the road a few days ago. The day was chilly; subzero temperatures with a strong north wind made it feel much colder. The recent snows and winds, causing plenty of drifts, made moving off the road a bit difficult. But here, I did see tracks of small mammals like squirrels, hare and mice that went over the snow. With a well-packed surface, I even saw where a fox stayed on top of the snow. Its cousin, a coyote, and a deer went through the crust.

But there was plenty more to see here. The trees that stood out in the cold all winter are beginning to respond to the longer days. Willows with yellow, orange and red twigs, along with the red-osier dogwoods, are already doing so. I saw a quaking aspen with enlarged buds. Before long we may be collecting twigs of willows and aspens and their opening buds as treatment for cabin fever.

It is interesting that we can recognize so many trees now even as they stand bare in this winter scene. The leafy conifers of pines, spruces, balsam and cedar may be the easiest to see, but I find that tamarack in the swamps and maples, oaks, basswoods and birches in the woods are quite easy to discern as well. They do not show their unique leaves now, but they are recognizable with their particular growth patterns and twig-bud arrangements.

The smaller alders at the edges of wetlands with catkins and cones stand out now, too. But as I walked, I could tell what wildflowers were here along the road as they poked up through the snow.

Any wildflower now rising above the present snowpack needs to be tall enough, but there are plenty here to see. They do not hold the colors from last summer and fall and may appear to be nothing more than dead sticks, but I recognized 10 kinds as I passed by.

Several, like the cattails in the swamp, looked much like they did last summer in shape and size, but without the green. These aquatic plants were taking advantage of the dry winter air for the seed packs to open. Then the winds, like what I walked through today, dispersed the seeds. Most of the winter wildflowers that we see above the snow are dead except for the hardy seeds. Beneath the protective snowpack, the roots are alive.

Away from the wetlands and along the road, I could easily recognize the plants of goldenrod, aster, yarrow, thistle, black-eyed susan, tansy and mullein. All still had the shape that I remember from the warmer days when they had their flowers. Some lingered quite late into the fall. Eventually all succumbed to the cold, but not before forming the seeds that will be viable in the coming spring and summer.

Goldenrod, aster, yarrow and thistle all developed seeds with attachments to help them drift in the winter winds. A few will find proper conditions for growth; most do not. But enough succeed that these plants thrive in the open sites. Others, like black-eyed susan, tansy and mullein, do not rely on the wind as much. Instead, their seeds may be eaten and spread by animals. I have seen redpoll flocks feeding in a patch of tansy.

Two other plants I found sticking up through the snow did not look as they did in previous seasons. Both milkweed and evening primrose flowered last July and now hold their seeds in pods. The pods are open in the season's dry air. The milkweed pods, with ample fluff on the seeds, are usually empty by this time. The same goes for the evening primrose, whose seeds drop from the pods, perhaps being carried off by animals.

We are quite a way from summer, but I'm still able to locate several kinds of roadside wildflowers. As I look at them now, I realize that I'm seeing preparation for the future. These plants, like some Northlanders, are anticipating the warmer days of the coming seasons.

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.

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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