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A winter willow (above) grows in the wetlands surrounded by other plants but, unlike the rest, it is holding many seeds for dispersal. Photo by Larry Weber

Northland Nature: Winter present challenges — except for winter willows

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outdoors Cloquet, 55720
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Northland Nature by Larry Weber

On our trip through the year, we have reached the winter solstice, the first day of winter. However, the season did not wait until this date to start. We have been having wintry weather since we began this month.

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And it looks like not only will Christmas be white, so will the entire month. An early onset of the cold season can catch us off guard, but with a little adjusting of our lives, we cope with it quite well. It is amazing how 20 inches of snow and sub-zero temperatures are accepted and adequately dealt with by seasonal Northlanders.

The wild residents of the region also coped well when the blanket and chill moved in. I noticed how the deer, squirrels and rabbits all had a tough going for a while in the new snow, but once trails, shelters and food sources had been established, they were doing much better.

The small mammals, mice and shrews, welcomed the snow as a place to move through and under, and they fare better after the snow and cold arrived than they would have without it.

Birds struggled a bit at first as the snow piled up, and then with the subsequent frigid temperatures. But by fluffing up feathers to get more insulation and finding feeding and roosting sites, they seem to have adapted.

The animals spend each day at this time in winter just getting by. Meals and shelters occupy their days and there is little concern for future months.

This will change as we get later in the winter.

It may seem a surprise that many plants are showing that they are preparing for the spring already, even as we are just beginning winter. Recently as I walked through the knee-deep snowpack in the woods, I saw that the snow’s surface was littered with birch seeds that had dropped from nearby trees. No growing of these seeds now, but they hold the promise of the warmer season.

Also, along the roadsides and fields, I saw plants that last summer and fall had flowers, are now are full of seeds. All prepare for the coming spring by dispersing their seeds.

Some of them, the thistles, milkweeds, fireweeds, goldenrods and asters, rely on the winds of winter to carry their seeds in fluffy-downy material that will drift with the breeze. Under the dry conditions of winter, the seeds separate from the main plant, allowing them travel in the chilly air.

Cattails in the swamp are one of the last to have their seeds take wing, but nearby there is a mysterious tree that also hold fluffy seeds, the winter willow.

We may remember when the ripened seeds of the willows, along with those of the poplars and aspens, flew about in the white fluff of late May and early June. Some years, their drift is so thick as to appear to be a “warm weather snowstorm.”

Tree catkins that formed and were pollinated in early spring developed to produce the seeds that matured and dispersed into the winds of late spring.

But as often happens in nature, there is an exception.

A small willow that grows out in the swamps and other wetlands was not so quick to send out its seeds. Instead of a spring planting season, these small trees wait until the autumn and winter to disperse their seeds.

I usually see the fluffy seeds on these willows in damp sites in November, after the leaves have dropped from other trees. The fluffy material around the seeds is more exposed when no leaves are on the trees and so can be carried off by the cool breeze with ease.

Often by the time we reach the end of the year, most of the seeds have been blown off and the winter willow will look as bare as other nearby trees.

Willow species abound in the North Country and many grow in wet places. But if we see some that are holding fluffy growths on them, it’s easy to think that we are getting a look at the buds of pussy willow of spring.

But at this time, we are seeing the seeds from last year that are adapted to life in winter and are being dispersed to bring a new growth in the coming warm season that now seems so far away.

Many of our local plants are coated seeds that pass through this cold season in great shape, with a promise of growth in the spring.

One is a small tree in the swamp — the winter willow, that now holds its seeds.

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 news@pinejournal.com.

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