Despite the cold, short days and long nights of Winter, some plants remain green throughout the year. The term “evergreen” refers more to this characteristic than to how closely these plants are related to each other. On a short hike around Marshy Point, the most common evergreens one might encounter include American holly, clubmosses, ferns, junipers, and pines.
Clubmosses belong to the genus Lycopodium which translates from Greek as “wolf’s foot”. They are related to ferns and similarly reproduce with spores. Lycopodium clavatum is the species that can be found at Marshy Point in large, low-growing colonies. Historically, the dried spores of Lycopodium have been used in pyrotechnics and explosives to make a fast, but controlled, burning flash powder.
While the thought of ferns might evoke images of warm prehistoric forests, the Christmas fern remains green through the Winter in present-day forests throughout eastern North America. Indeed, the name “Christmas fern” comes from its staying green through the Winter season. The structure of the plant itself also earns its name—individual leaflets resemble holiday stockings turned on their sides.
Clubmosses and ferns are generally considered simple, primitive plants—they reproduce with spores rather than seeds. Conifers such as pines and junipers are more modern plants, belonging to the group known as gymnosperms. This group is characterized by having “naked seeds,” meaning that the seeds are not enclosed in a fruit; instead, they often form a cone.
The pines of Marshy Point include Virginia pine, loblolly pine, white pine, and pitch pine. The needles of many pines are high in vitamins A and C and can be made into a medicinal tea. The juniper or red cedar has soft, scaly leaves rather than needles; its bark makes an excellent fire starter. The cones of junipers are used to flavor gin.
The American holly is in yet another plant family: the angiosperms. This family is made up of flowering plants and is the most diverse and widespread group of plants. Within this group, hollies belong to the genus Ilex and are “dioecious,” meaning that individual trees are male or female. Only female trees produce the characteristic red berries. During the 1800s, hollies were among the first trees used in this part of the United States as Christmas trees.
Thanks to evergreens, there are signs of plant life even in the Winter woods of Marshy Point. Wildlife is abundant in the Winter as well, including many birds that cannot be seen here at other times of the year. So, bundle up, take a hike, and warm up afterward at the wood stove in the Nature Center.