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Northland Nature: Roadside wildflowers in December

A goldenrod with a flower head filled with fluffy seeds stands tall in December. Photo by Larry Weber

Mid-December is now upon us. Weather conditions at this time can be rather impressive. It is not unusual to be very cold — well below zero. (Now is when the rivers often freeze over to last. Some say that this is the beginning of winter.)

This has also been the time of significant snows. Though some years temperatures may be mild and snowfalls easy to cope with, but we still have the other aspect of December: darkness. We are at the time of early sunsets — about 4:20 p.m. — and late sunrises — nearly 8 a.m.

The winter solstice, the day of shortest daylight of the whole year is only about a week away.

And yet, under clear skies, the darkness has much to offer. Mid-December is the Geminid Meteor Shower and this year, we can also search for Comet 46p/Wirtanen. This month has much more to see.

During my daily walks, I find animal tracks in the snow that tell news of the wildlife wintering here. Bird feeders keep us watching the active adapted avians. By this time, they have settled into regulars, but as the chill moves in, a few others may arrive.

Each year, we host some species of finch. What will it be this year? In the next few weeks, Christmas bird counts will take place in the region.

We don't think much of and hardly notice plants at this time. Deciduous trees are bare, devoid of leaves, as they tolerate the cold. Scattered in the Northland forests are many kinds of conifers that add green to the scene. This is not the time that we notice flowers, except for the poinsettias that appear each year with the holidays. And yet, each day as I walk along a road during this cold and drab month, I see a plethora of the local wildflowers in their winter attire.

It was back in the warm days of July and August that the roadsides lit up with blooming of many kinds of wildflowers.

In July, milkweed and fireweed showed purple, while tansy, sweetclover, evening primrose and mullein gave yellow to the scene.

Later, in August, more yellow came from the diverse goldenrods and sunflowers, while asters added white and purple.

Those days are only a memory as I walk by on a December day, but the results of flowering time are present now. The flowers of summer used colors to entice insects to visit and pollinate them; leading to the development of seeds within the flower head.

The seeds, the potential new growths of next year, formed here, but are more likely to grow if spread from their home site. Much of winter is seed dispersal time for flowers.

Some plants, like tansy, sweetclover, sunflower and primrose merely drop their seeds or depend of birds to eat the small rounded seeds to be carried away. Others, like milkweed, fireweed, goldenrod and aster, grow fluffy attachments onto the seeds. This fluff will catch the breeze and drift off to anywhere it may land.

Each day now, I see the goldenrods and asters with flower heads filled with fluffy seeds. Patiently, they wait for enough wind to dislodge their airborne seeds. Milkweed and fireweed got off to an earlier start and their pods are mostly empty now. The chances of finding a good spot to grow are very low and so the plant sends out hundreds of seeds so that a few may germinate.

Here, as we approach the winter solstice, we see plants that are preparing for growth next summer.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o krohman@duluthnews.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.