During the spring, summer and fall I take to the woods, and last year I spent more time in other forests than ever before, researching whatever caught my attention. This penchant of mine is absolutely the best part of being a naturalist/ecologist/generalist. It was mushrooms for months, trees, autumn leaves, and lastly just before snow I turned my attention to ground covers. Knowing that a white blanket would soon be covering the forest floor separating me from these earth loving friends I spent whole afternoons in their presence. Shiny wintergreen leaves hid bright red berries and more than once I had to crush a leaf to release its sweet scent. Most folks know the medicinal benefits of wintergreen, which include its ability to soothe sore muscles.
Because the places I go are hidden away from all but the lightest foot traffic (mostly from animals) the leathery leaves of trailing arbutus cascade over gentle rises sipping moisture from the air. These plants thrive close to flowing water crowding together in thick green matted colonies. In early June the pure white or pale pink flowers will intoxicate anyone who seeks their fragrance, including wild bees who seek out these tiny trumpets for sweet nectar.
Princess pine, one of the tree -like club mosses snakes along the forest floor, candles aloft. The cone shaped flower of this club moss (as well as others) is a spore bearing reproductive structure. Club mosses are more closely related to ferns and horsetails than actual mosses.Although these plants generally colonize the understory today, massive forests of tree-sized club mosses, ferns, and horsetails used to dominate the landscape 400 million years ago. Over time, these forests were buried and compacted into what we know today as coal, a very finite and deadly resource.
Ground cedar (another club moss) fans her fronds in a circle, even as shallow roots creep along just under the surface of fallen leaves. Rosettes of pippesewa and other pyrolas each have their niches as does wild lily of the valley. This diversity of ground covers attests to a forest soil’s health. All are shallow rooted and vulnerable to drought and freeze-thaw winter conditions like the kind we are starting to experience here.
Out of all these ground covers my favorite woodland creeper is Partridgeberry, probably because I first fell in love with it as a child. This delicate plant loves rich moist forest soil. Because I spend so much time in the lowlands, I am often surrounded by miles of this acid loving trailing vine that creates incredibly dense mats in places where it is particularly happy. All summer I kept an eye on the plants waiting for berries to appear. By late August I began to glimpse a few hard lime green fruits. Half way through November the forest floor was covered with dark jade leaves that provides a sharp contrast to masses of stunning scarlet berries. Sometimes, I needed to uncover nature’s deciduous mulch to see the wealth of bounty hidden below.
As a child I grew partridgeberry in a terrarium taking great joy from the sight of crimson berries that lasted until spring. As a young adult I kept a few berried sprigs dampened with moss in a clear glass ball that I hung on my Norfolk Island pine during the winter season. I also kept partridgeberry and other woodland plants in an open bowl. I returned the plants to their natural habitat in spring.
This year I have once again created a small terrarium for the house to remind me of my ‘Refuge’ and of all the ground creepers that are sleeping under the snow while root tips remain in lively conversation. Root tips make decisions about next year’s growth with their underground fungal partners and other neighbors all winter long.
To create a healthy indoor environment it is critical to lift soil and mulch from areas where plants grow in abundance so the necessary nutrients are available all winter long. After adding the partridgeberry I included club moss and snowberry, another common creeper with white fruits, lichen, moss, and two small hemlock seedlings. The ‘right’ stone turned out to be a piece of chert. I mist my emerald green ‘woodland’ daily keeping an eye on the direction of the sun. This collection of plants needs protection from too much light. When I stick my nose into my tiny forest the scent is intoxicating.
With so many plant species disappearing I am especially happy to be writing about plants that aren’t under threat, at least in untouched forests – at least not yet. As long as some forests are left alone these plants and others like them will continue to thrive for awhile, but we are chewing up our woodlands at an alarming rate and you will not find an abundance of these plants in any forest that has been logged recently because it takes so many years for the soil to recover from its trauma.
The other issue, is ‘receationists’, my term for those folks that are now swarming through our woodlands, either on foot or by machine. Partridgeberry and all the other ground covers I mention in this article will not tolerate being stepped on, let alone run over by a machine. Although the creepers thrive on either side of animal paths, regular soil compaction of any kind will kill them. Consequently, I respectfully urge hikers to stay on the paths that various land trusts/others have created so that these plants can continue to enliven the understory. As previously mentioned, machines are deadly, compacting the earth and killing the shallow root systems of these ground covers, eventually making it impossible for any of these plants to grow at all.
Partidgeberry is a native perennial that finds home in eastern North America from Newfoundland to Minnesota, south to Texas and Florida in forests that are left undisturbed.Partridgeberry inhabits deciduous and coniferous forests rich in organic soil thriving in dappled sunlight or complete shade. The trailing stems root at nodes that come into contact with moist soil. The dark green evergreen leaves are oval shaped with a pale stripe. In spring two white-tubular flowers appear. I always get wet because I have to get on my knees to smell the twins. The two flowers on each plant have different structures. In one the pistal is short and stamens are long; in the second the reverse occurs, the pistal is long and the stamens are short making it impossible for each flower to fertilize itself (Amazing Nature!).
Both flowers must be pollinated by insects, primarily bumblebees (according to some sources) in order to produce one berry, and the fruit is the result of the fusing of each ovary belonging to the pollinated pair. If you look carefully at one red fruit it is possible to see two spots on the berry. Each contains up to eight seeds that are eaten by birds (turkeys and grouse always eat all of mine here). A number of animals also eat the berries. Chipmunks and squirrels, foxes, skunks and mice feast away if the birds don’t get them first. The seeds must be cold stratified and may take two years to germinate (most do not) if they fall into the ground or are dispersed by birds and animals.
Although I have rapidly spreading clusters of this creeper down around my brook I will never feel as if I have enough of this evergreen. A huge cluster has recently overtaken an old rotting trunk that is now sprouting two pines, three kinds of mosses and lichen… A young hemlock’s fronds gracefully shade the stump. Every year I check my partridgeberry for flowers as soon as all the snow is gone. Last year most flowers bloomed in May, almost a month earlier than usual. The flowers on mine are almost pink reminding me of the cascading trailing arbutus blooms that cover the forest floor.
There are so many intriguing ground covers that I urge anyone who is interested in plants to plan to visit a forest that has been allowed to care for itself. You will not be disappointed. If you are like me and need green all winter long you might want to create a miniature garden of your own, but please don’t do this unless you are prepared to research your plants to make certain you don’t dig up any that are endangered. And please return the plants to their homeland come spring.