To Love Winter: Striped Wintergreen

It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention.  Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants.  Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’.   Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm).  Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub.  Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant.  During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays.  But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy.  They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.

Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others.  One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation.  Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.

Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely.  Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil.  Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it.  What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.

Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers.  If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter.  These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter.  But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves.  Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.

Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata).  Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

More Reasons to Love Winter

Reasons to Love Winter

An Orchid in Winter

Coralberry – A Winter Standout

What Winter Reveals:  Hoptrees

Late Winter Bird Food

A Winter Garden Can Be a Wildlife Habitat

Resources

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa.  From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela.  2000.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore.  1984.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Evergreen Native Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database

 

 

A Holiday Break

If you feel the need for a little break from all the holiday shopping and festivities, I recommend a walk in the woods.

If the ground isn’t snow-covered, you might look for Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) while you are out walking. It’s a low evergreen perennial that creeps across the forest floor, resembling strings of tiny holiday garlands.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry may be peeking out from under fallen leaves.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Look closely at a patch of moss, and you might find Patridgeberry interspersed with it.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry’s bright red fruit usually persists on the plant throughout the winter and even into spring.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

It may actually be easier to find Patridgeberry in the winter than it is during the growing season, depending on its situation. This diminutive ground cover may be hidden by taller herbaceous plants and shrubs in the late spring when it begins to bloom.  If you find it in winter, you’ll know where to look to see the flowers, probably sometime in late May or June.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Bumble Bees are the primary pollinators of Patridgeberry’s tiny trumpet-shaped flowers. The flowers are always in pairs; in fact, they are actually joined.

Patridgeberry's (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

Patridgeberry’s (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

The two flowers share a single ovary, the part of the flower from which a fruit develops.  As a result, no more than one berry is produced for every pair of flowers.  You might think of this as analogous to conjoined twins that share a body part.  In recognition of this trait, another common name for this plant is Twinberry.  If you look closely at the fruit in the photo below, you can see two dimples, each with a somewhat jagged edge.  This is where each individual flower was joined to the ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged 'dimples' where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged ‘dimples’ where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhite, White-footed Mice, Red Fox and Eastern Chipmunks are among the animals that eat Patridgeberry fruits. The animals subsequently disperse Patridgeberry’s seeds, which are accompanied by natural fertilizer (the animal’s excrement) to give the seeds a good start.

Native American tribes have used various parts of Patridgeberry, sometimes in combination with other plants, as a gynecological aid and pain reliever, as well as to treat rashes and urinary tract problems, among other problems.

Patridgeberry can be found in the woods of the eastern half of the United States, and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and parts of Newfoundland & Labrador.

For the holidays, do whatever best renews your spirit. A walk in the woods will do it for me.

If the ground is snow-covered, there will be other holiday decorations to see, courtesy of nature. Nothing you have to put up, or take down.  No muss, no fuss.  Just beauty.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Related Posts

A Holiday Display, Courtesy of Nature

Resources

Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners.  2005

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

December Bounty

What will birds and other animals do for food, now that we’re entering the long winter months?

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

They’ll still be foraging for protein in the form of insects, but the supply will be much less plentiful than in the warmer months when many more insects are active. Ground feeders will forage among the fallen leaves, while others will investigate branches and probe bark crevices of trees and shrubs for a meal.

Gray Squirrel

Gray Squirrel

Ripe fruit will also help sustain resident winter animals. On a recent visit to Spring Lake at the Abbott Marshlands, from a single spot where the land meets the marsh, we found a bounty of food, including the hips of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris),

Hips of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Rose hips are rich in vitamin C. The hips of some rose species are used in teas.

Hips of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). Rose hips are rich in vitamin C. The hips of some rose species are used in teas.

Hips of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris).

Hips of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris).

open legumes of Groundnut (Apios americana), a pea family member,

Open legumes of Groundnut (Apios americana)

Open legumes of Groundnut (Apios americana)

ripe drupes of Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum),

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) fruit

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) fruit

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) fruit, called drupes

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) fruit, called drupes

the berry-like drupes of Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata),

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit

and a cascade of Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) fruit capsules.

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) fruit capsules

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) fruit capsules

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) fluttered in the breeze a bit further down the trail.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

A mixed flock of migrating Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds paused in the bare branches of trees overlooking the feast, to rest and refuel before continuing their journey.

Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds

Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

 

Related Posts

A Winter Garden Can be a Wildlife Habitat

Late Winter Bird Food

Wild Yam

Resources

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

 

 

What Winter Reveals: Hoptrees

A winter walk reveals things that might be missed during the growing season, when leaves densely cover the trees.  The fruits of Hoptrees (Ptelea trifoliata), or Wafer-ash, are among those potentially hidden treasures, hanging in clusters like seasonal ornaments from otherwise bare branches throughout the late fall and winter months.  The fruits are samaras, a type of dry fruit (not fleshy like a berry), each with a single seed encased in a papery covering with a winged edge surrounding the seed, designed to help the wind disperse it.

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) samaras in winter

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) samaras in winter

Many of the Hoptree’s aliases refer to these fruits.  The common name ‘Hoptree’ is a nod to the use of the fruits as a substitute for hops in brewing beer.  Another common name for this small tree or shrub is ‘Wafer-ash’, a name that refers to the wafer-like shape of the samaras.  Female ash trees also display clusters of fruits through late fall, although ash samaras are shaped like a paddle.  Hoptree samaras look more like the samaras of elm trees, a resemblance that is reflected in its genus, ptelea, which means elm tree.

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) samaras in summer

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) samaras in summer

In spite of these superficial similarities to elm and ash trees, Hoptrees are not related to either.  The Hoptree is the northernmost member of the Rue (Rutaceae) family, which also encompasses the genus citrus.  Because of this, the Rue family is often called the Citrus family.

Like many plant species, Hoptrees produce chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten by foraging animals.  All parts of the plant, including leaves, branches and twigs, have glands that release volatile oils when crushed, spraying a light mist on any critter naive enough to browse them, much like the mist produced when pealing a citrus fruit.  Fragrant and bitter chemical compounds are discharged, discouraging most potential consumers.  For good measure, this spray also contains chemicals that irritate the skin and make it photosensitive.  Altogether, it makes for an effective package of deterrents.  This is not a plant that is likely to be browsed by deer.

But there are a few insects that have evolved to be able to consume these leaves, synthesizing the deterrent chemical compounds in their bodies.  These sequestered chemicals help protect the insects from being eaten by other animals.  The Giant Swallowtail butterfly is one of the few insect species that uses this and other Rue family members as food plants for their caterpillars.

Attacks on Hoptrees by insects or fungi prompt the production of phytoalexins, which are additional protective compounds that have antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

Hoptrees produce many chemical compounds that have powerful medicinal uses.  Some Native American tribes, including the Menominees, used Hoptree constituents as a general health panacea or tonic.  The Hoptree, like ginseng, is one of a small number of plant species that are believed to be effective in improving the functioning of the human body as a whole.  Hoptrees have also been found to have properties that make other medicines more effective.

Hoptree flowers bloom in mid-spring, typically May.  The flowers are very fragrant, attracting many insect visitors to drink their nectar and potentially assist in pollination, including bees, butterflies, flies and wasps.

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) flowers, being visited by a fly, a potential pollinator

Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) flowers, being visited by a fly, a potential pollinator

The northern border of the Hoptree’s native range includes Quebec and Ontario provinces, and Nebraska, Colorado and Utah.  The range extends from there to all states to the south from Arizona to Florida.  Hoptrees can be found in a variety of habitats, including open woods, thickets, stream banks and prairies.  They like well-drained soil, and prefer shade to part-shade, but can tolerate full sun.  They are endangered in New Jersey and New York, and threatened in Pennsylvania.

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana.  Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.  2003

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Lewis, Walter H.; Elvin-Lewis, Memory P.F.  Medical Botany. 2003.

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA Plants Database