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Northland Nature: Roses give color to the roadsides again

A large growth of rose hips add plenty of red to the roadsides. Photo by Larry Weber

This month has been referred to as “gray November.” Such a label is a tribute to a period of time that is often the cloudiest for the whole year. Some years, the days proceed through November with clouds after clouds. Out of the clouds, we may get rain or later snow. The month that begins with open waters of ponds, swamps and lakes ends with a freezing of these. And so, November has often been called the “cloudy freeze-up” month. And then there is November 2016.

While November 2014 gave us chilly temperatures (about seven degrees less than the norm) with ample snowfall (about 16 inches) and an early freeze-up (also an early beginning to the ski season), November 2015 was mild — several degrees above the usual and the lakes did not freeze until the end of the month or later. This November has continued the mild trend and for the first half, we would not call it by its traditional name, but instead these days so far have been considerably warmer than normal with clear skies and very dry. Only small amounts of ice have been noted, and this has been temporary.

However, the leaves are gone from the trees and due to these arid conditions, snow is only a topic of discussion. The days of AutWin that began about Oct. 20 continue. I find walking the woods on these clear mild days of November just as fascinating as always. Among the bare trees and the dead leaves scattered across the forest floor, I find the green plants of lichens, mosses, clubmosses, ferns and a few flowering plants. They add much to the scene. And since most are small, they get overlooked in the leafy green forests of summer and the snow-covered woods of winter. But as I walk, I see plenty more in the AutWin landscape. Small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels and mice are preparing for the coming cold. Chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers are taking advantage of the mild temperatures to catch some insect meals before they are not available. Among the insects, I continue to see small red dragonflies (autumn meadowhawks), late-season moths and a variety of flies mostly in the sunlight.

Looking towards and below the sun (never look at the sun), I see a plethora of travel threads laid down by spiders as they move about on these branches of autumn. Many of the small ones (called spiderlings) use the breeze and drift on a silk thread. The process, called ballooning, allows them to disperse. Most of the threads from these adventurous treks are left in the branches and we see just how abundant they are. But as I walk and look around, I see that some red is here in the drab woods as well. And since the red leaves have dropped, it is something else that provides this color.

Starting low, I note the berries and fruits out here. Always with evergreen leaves, wintergreen on the forest floor produces a bright red berry. Nearby, sticking up on a small plant now with brown leaves, are the tiny red berries of wild lily-of-the-valley (Canada mayflower). Both showed white flowers during the spring and summer. As I walk from the woods and along its edge, I find the small trees of crab apples and hawthorns, also with red berries and fruits. Neither seems to be as populous as I expect. Maybe they did not produce as much this year or maybe many have been already eaten. Continuing my walk, I now go along a wetland. Here I find two more small trees with growths of red berries: highbush cranberries and winterberry holly. Some juicy fruits are on the highbush cranberry, less than normal and not much on the winterberry holly. After seeing these plants with fewer red berries and fruits than normal, it is a delight to see a plant that has plenty of red berries: a widespread growth of wild roses.

At a site, near a road and a pond, I locate a wild rose that is filled with reddish fruits. These cousins of apples have a small fruit, only about one-half inch in diameter, often called rose hips. Like apples, they have seeds in the center and sepals at the end. The roses that are growing here were a delight to watch during the warm season. Back in about mid-June, their large pink flowers opened. For the next several weeks, they demanded my attention as I took my regular walks. Insects were also attracted and after pollination, the seeds and fruits developed. Being bright red now, they continue to get attention from passersby (as do other plants with red berries and fruits). Some Northlanders gather these rose hips after the frosts of fall and use them for teas and other foods. I usually leave them for the wildlife residents of the north country to feed upon. Picking them or not, these rose hips give a touch of red to the drab landscape of November, whether it is cloudy or clear and warm or cold.

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