Winter Greenery

rhododendron with snow
Snow covered rhododendron

NPS photo

The woodlands of the New River Gorge are dominated by deciduous trees like oak and maple. By the end of October these trees have lost their leaves and the mountainsides look gray and exposed. A plant's food production takes place in its leaves and uses a large amount of water. To plants, winter is a time of drought. Water is frozen in the ground or crystallized above it as snow. To survive these harsh conditions, many plants shed their leaves and the hills look as colorless as a black and white photo. But here and there as you gaze across the mountains you will see a patch of green. As you walk the trails, push aside the fallen leaves or snow and you will find many plants that provide some winter greenery.

The most noticeable evergreen plants in the New River Gorge are the conifers, primarily white pine and hemlock; and heaths like rhododendron and mountain laurel. Conifers have adapted to the harsh conditions of winter by replacing broad leaves with needles, a form of modified leaves. They are small and round to limit surface area, with a waxy coating to reduce evaporation. The tall Christmas-tree shaped white pine, with its bundles of five needles, grows along the ridge tops. Hemlocks dwell in moist creek hollows. Their long drooping branches provide winter cover for man small mammals.

Rhododendrons and mountain laurel are broad-leaved evergreens -- their leaves have a waxy coating, and to reduce surface area they curl into a cigar-shape. In some places, these shrubs grow so thickly you might forget the gray of winter.

On the forest floor, especially along the rim of the gorge, you might see patches of what appear to be miniature Christmas trees. This evergreen ground cover is ground pine. It is a club moss that is closely related to ferns. Early in the winter it has a spike of powdery yellow spores. Christmas fern is another plant that stays green all winter. This tall fern is sometimes used for Christmas decoration. Some folks say the name comes from the shape of the finnule (leaflet) that looks like a Christmas stocking. Wintergreen or teaberry is a favorite of winter hikers. You need to push away the leaves or snow to find this low-growing heath. The edible red berry tastes like teaberry gum.

Enjoy these plants that have kept their green color despite the cold. The winter greenery you see in the New River Gorge is a reminder of the green world of the previous year, and a promise that the life that lies hidden under the leaves and snow will once again color the mountains.

Last updated: January 22, 2020

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