Article by Lauren Sims
Photos by Rick Fisher
For many, a walk through the woods to identify plants is an activity restricted to the spring and summer seasons. Plants, after all, are identified by their leaves—nature must be in bloom in order to learn about them. Right? Not so fast, says Ken Moore.
“Take a walk in the woods in the wintertime, and try and contrast it with a similar walk that you would make in the middle of the summer,” says Moore, the former assistant director of the N.C. Botanical Garden. “In the wintertime, you don’t have all those leaves on the trees. So you can really see the whole nature of the landscape. You can see the ups and downs, you see the beautiful architecture of the whole forest.”
A forest is lovely in the summer, Moore says. But despite the cool shade and the vibrant greens, “you can’t really see the forest because of the leaves. You’re so busy looking at the color of trees and flowers and the texture of ferns, you’re sort of unaware of the characteristics of individual plants.”
“With all the leaves gone, you’re forced to concentrate on other aspects of the plants,” he says. And, surprisingly, bare branches can actually be more clearly identifiable than foliage. According to Moore, leaves on the same plant may vary widely in their color, their size and even in their shape. In many cases, using them for identification purposes can be more confusing than helpful. More stable identifiers like bark and the configuration of buds at the ends of branches are often a surer bet, and they are showcased during the winter months.
Winter may appear to be a barren or uninteresting season for nature lovers, but do not be fooled. There is much to learn about your favorite plants this time of year. In fact, you may come to prize those winter nature walks even more than their summer counterparts.
“Most of us walk around in the winter saying, ‘I don’t know what any of these things are, I’ll have to wait until the leaves come out so I can tell you.’ My feeling is, ‘I can’t wait until the leaves all fall off, and then I can have the forest back!’ ”
To learn more about nature in winter, consider taking Moore’s “Winter Botany” 2-day class at Duke Gardens on Jan. 23 and 30 from 1 to 4 p.m. For information or to register, call 668-1707, e-mail the registrar or see page 12 of our full education brochure (PDF).
Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.
Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This article first appeared in The Herald-Sun on Jan. 15.