Even though it’s winter, there is still a lot of activity happening on the grounds at Crystal Bridges. In this blog, Landscape Grounds Technician Joanna Mentzer points out plants and phenomena that can be seen along the museum’s trails in the winter season. Read about them here, then hit the trails yourself! Remember to maintain at least six-feet distancing from others. Timed tickets are not needed for visits to the grounds.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), both found in the Monarch Waystation, are letting go of their seeds in a fun way. Though milkweeds and goldenrods come from very different plant families, the mechanism they use to disperse their seeds is similar. Seeds from these plants are equipped to fly! Each seed is attached to a silky white tuft called a pappus. Goldenrod seeds are found in silvery, upright clusters, while milkweed seeds spill out of a dried pod. These seeds take advantage of windy days to carry them to new homes where they wait for spring temperatures to start growing.
A lesser-known evergreen is the Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana var. australis ‘Green Shadow’). It is native to the southeastern US. It is fast-growing but still remains a small tree, generally topping out at 35 feet. It has leathery leaves that look like bay leaves and have a spicy scent when crushed, giving the tree its name.
Another common name for this tree is a swamp magnolia because it likes wet soils, making it an excellent choice for a rain garden. Sweetbay magnolias have white, lemon-scented blossoms that open in May and June. If you would like to see some Sweetbay magnolias, check out the streambank and hillside by Maman on the Art Trail.
If you are walking the Tulip Tree Trail and notice a solitary green-and-white-striped leaf amid the brown leaf litter, you may have spotted a putty root orchid (Aplectrum hyemale). This member of the orchid family is native to the eastern United States. Putty root populations are often small and scattered, making it a somewhat rare find.
This plant keeps a unique schedule. In the fall, putty root begins its growing season by sending up one leaf as the trees above it drop theirs and let the sun shine down to the forest floor. This leaf will remain until the late spring, photosynthetically feeding the underground portion of the plant, and then it will wither away just as the rest of the forest is greening up. In favorable summer conditions, putty root sends up a solitary flower stalk with greenish-purple flowers. The flowers mature into dry pods with seeds that are small enough to be dispersed by the wind.
Winter is a slower time in nature, allowing us to take in some of the smaller wonders along our trails. Colorful lichens can be found on rocks and trees on every continent. There are about 13,500 lichen species in the world. They are formed through a partnership between fungi and algae, resulting in an organism with attributes of both. Together, they can survive conditions that individually they would not.
Lichens have no stems, roots, or leaves. They obtain moisture and nutrients through absorption, making them very sensitive to pollutants. Monitoring lichens can be helpful in evaluating the environmental quality of an area. Lichens are small and slow-growing, but over time contribute to the biological weathering of rock into soil.
Moss is a tiny organism that is easily overlooked, yet its evolution as a land plant 400 million years ago caused an increase in atmospheric oxygen that made more complex life on Earth possible. Moss can be found on every continent, and 12,000 species have been recorded. Each individual moss plant is very small and has no true roots for water uptake. The stems are soft, with spirally arranged leaves only one cell thick that absorb water for the plant. Moss individuals usually grow tightly bunched together to retain precious water. In dry conditions, moss simply shrivels up and suspends plant functions. When water touches the surface of dried moss, it begins to green again, sometimes within minutes. This ability gives moss a life-preserving quality that allows it to reanimate from its dormant state even after 100 years!
Moss is very important to the health of our local landscape by stabilizing soil along waterways and providing habitat and nesting materials for small animals. If you need to see some green this winter, bundle up and visit our moss garden full of ancient plants near the Crystal Pond!
Now that we are in our late winter deep freeze, a stillness falls over the grounds. Many of the museum’s animals and visitors are tucked away in their warmest hideouts. The American holly trees (Ilex opaca) however, are bright, bustling with life, and covered in songbirds. American hollies are native to the southeastern United States and can grow to 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide. A waxy cutin coating helps the leaves retain moisture and remain green year-round. The dense foliage is valuable to our songbirds as shelter against the winter’s cold.
Female holly trees produce red berries in the fall, which are very showy in our landscape. These berries, though poisonous to humans, are an important source of food to robins, cardinals, juncos, titmice, and sparrows, when many food sources may be frozen or buried under snow. Holly trees are low maintenance and can grow well in sun or shade. Native holly trees can be used to create windbreaks or privacy hedges that are not only beautiful but attract and support songbirds.
Written by Joanna Mentzer, landscape grounds technician, Crystal Bridges.