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Northland Nature...The Seeds of November

Vining white clematis covers a small tree, as seen on a November day. Photo by Larry Weber1 / 2
The white flowers of summer have become the fluffy plumes now seen along the roadsides. Photo by Larry Weber2 / 2

We have many things to observe in the natural world during November. This is a month of change. From entrance to exit, the scene takes on a completely different appearance. The days get shorter. We especially notice the early sunsets after the end of daylight savings time.

Along with this, the temperatures constantly drop. Though we don't usually get to the subzero range, we do frequently see early mornings in the teens and some single digits. The early month rains become snow later. The rise and fall of temperatures are often near the freezing point, but mild days of fifty degrees are not unheard of. But the overall trend is for the mercury to drop.

Ponds and swamps are the first to take on a coating of ice fairly early. We notice this movement progressing through the thirty days and we see the ice extending out onto the lakes. The grass-and-leaf cover of early November is often a white blanket by the end. Open waters are no longer open, and any exposed area of ground is frozen as well.

With all these changes, it's good to see some things that last throughout the whole month.

The month of November always seems to have a greater than normal number of cloudy days. Indeed, one of the most used names for this time is "gray November." I find that yes, this weather factor appears to be an accurate assessment of the month, but I find that the label may be even more accurate for other aspects of the landscape.

As I walk through this autumn (or autwin) scene, I'm struck by how gray the plants look. Many of our deciduous trees now stand in stark gray as the bark of trunks and branches are in such contrast to the green foliage of summer. But as I pass from the woods into the edges, the roadsides and the fields, I find that the gray intensifies. These unmowed sites are filled with an abundance of tall plants. The wildflowers, mostly goldenrods and asters, that put forth such colorful bouquets in late summer and early fall have now gone on to their next phase - the formation and distribution of seeds.

Seeds are produced in many ways by flowering plants and though we may enjoy looking at the floral displays, the plant is mostly using these blossoms to get pollinated, largely by insects. Once this step is accomplished, the seeds begin to grow. But they need to leave their home plant and so many develop various means to get their seeds dispersed. Some seeds are spread by animals that eat the fruits and berries. Others attach to our hair and clothing. But myriads of seeds take advantage of the breeze, which is often very strong at this time of year. These wind-dispersed plants need to have seeds picked up by the moving air so they grow fluffy parts that make the seeds drift better. It is this fluff that we now see.

Goldenrods and asters in the fields get plenty of breezes. Though they are no longer flowering, we still can recognize them by their shape. Not all are like this; three common plants of the Northland that bloom in mid summer now hold fluffy seeds that look entirely different from their warm-weather floral arrangement: fireweed, milkweed and clematis.

Fireweed and milkweed turn their purple flowers into pods. With the drying conditions of fall, these pods open and parachute-like seeds emerge.

Clematis is a bit different. White clematis, also known as virgin's bower, holds white flowers on woody vines. Many domestic clematis vine in local gardens, while a wild purple one grows here in spring.

I find that a vining growth of white clematis at this time of November is probably even more of a visual display than their white flowers of summer. Each flower produces long fluffy plumes and they open to become a beard-like growth of a couple of inches in diameter. When these get clustered on vines climbing eight to ten feet high over nearby trees, it makes for quite a show. My walks and bike rides at this time have often been halted as I come up to these spreading clematis with hundreds of fluffy plumes.

It may be "gray November," but roadside floral displays are still worth a closer look. Goldenrods, asters, fireweed, milkweed and especially clematis continue to grace the scene.

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