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Northland Nature: Cranberries and hollies among the red berries now seen in the region

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Columns Cloquet,Minnesota 55720
Pine Journal
Northland Nature: Cranberries and hollies among the red berries now seen in the region
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Anything that is not the gray color of tree trunks or the brown shade of the leaves of the forest floor is sure to show up in the woods at this time. Anyone walking here during these AutWin days is going to notice the greens that are mixed with the drab landscape of late November.


It is under these conditions that we see how many conifers grow here with the deciduous trees.

Three kinds of pines, two spruces, cedars and balsam are common in the Northland. By far the largest of the green plants appearing now, they are far from being alone.

In some woods, it seems like the base of every tree and logs are coated with a carpet of mosses. These small plants are not only green in late fall, they remain so for the entire winter. Wood fern and rock cap fern are the only two of this group staying green, but their cousins, the clubmosses, thrive.

It is hard to not notice these spreading plants that look like small trees. Typically, during a single walk now, I can find from three to five kinds.

Some flowering plants keep green among the downed leaves. And often the trunks and branches of trees are filled with thick growths of lichens. I'm always glad to see them as I walk through the woods since their abundance is a sign that our air is clean. They vary in color from gray to blue to green, even yellow-orange.

But continuing to look, I notice plenty of bright red here too.

Red colors in the landscape of the forests, roadsides, swamps and fields are sure to get attention. And that is exactly what the plants want when they hold berries of this color.

Maybe the most obvious of the red berries is now seen on the mountain-ash trees since they frequently grow in yards in the Northland. A couple of wild mountain-ash species also grow in the woods. All have these red berry groups in fall and winter.

I find several others with red berries as well. They all seem to be either small trees or bushes.

A small tree often at the edges of woods and wetlands, the highbush cranberry, is laden with clusters of red berries. These juicy fruits may look like the famous cranberries of Thanksgiving, and so get this name, but the tree is not a cranberry; instead, it is a species of viburnum. Most humans avoid eating highbush cranberries and I've noticed that since they remain on the trees for months, they are not chosen by wildlife much either.

In the swamps and other wetlands, usually along the periphery, I see plenty of winterberry holly. The small trees have tiny red berries like the well-known Christmas holly, but no green leaves. It is a true holly, but not collected for the holiday of next month since the berries are nearly always gone by then. (The name of "winterberry holly" should not be confused with the tiny forest plants with green leaves and red berries called wintergreens.)

Three related plants, all members of the rose family, are thick with red berries and fruits of their own at this time. Being only a couple of feet tall, wild roses showed beautiful pink flowers last summer and then settled down to develop the enlarged berries known as rose hips. I see them mostly along roadsides and the edges of fields.

Not only consumed by wildlife, rose hips are considered a delight by many seekers of wild edibles.

Crab apples can be various colors and many are loaded with bright red small apples.

The nearby cousin, the hawthorn, has similar fruits. (Sometimes these small trees are known as "haw apples.") Hawthorns also have a growth of thorns on the stems; perhaps this is its way of selecting who can eat the fruits.

Both crab apples and hawthorns ripen before tame apples, and drop their leaves to reveal their crops long before the domestic ones do too.

Sumacs are small trees that show up most clearly in September with a dazzling display of red foliage. Also growing along the woods edges, we tend to stop noticing them when the leaves fall, but tight clusters of small fuzzy purple-red berries hang on for much of the winter.

Some of these plants will soon be devoid of fruits and berries; others will linger. Lots will be found by hungry birds and mammals as we get more into the colder weather. Their eating will disperse the seeds, which is what the plant wants and why the berries are often a showy red.

But for now, they are a colorful addition to the November woods.

Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." You may contact him at