Attitude Adjustment

The holidays are long gone. The New Year’s resolutions are already in a shambles. It’s dumping rain.  I’ve already changed my wet clothes once today. I’m trying to muster up a modicum of enthusiasm for venturing outside again to engage with nature. I need an attitude adjustment, maybe a positive affirmation. A feeble thought emerges from my rain-soaked brain: The winter woods have gifts to offer.

I try repeating this to my ungrateful self and it engenders protest, then a slight progression toward positivity. 1) Are you kidding me? It’s nasty out there!  2) What’s to see right now? It’s dark and the shrubs have no leaves–just a bunch of ugly sticks. 3)  Then I hear my father’s voice: “Get your raingear on, get out there and conquer the elements!”

I make myself repeat: “The winter woods have gifts to offer. The winter woods have gifts to offer.”  What the heck. The dog needs a walk anyway.

I squish across the field in my rubber boots. Anyone in their right mind with any kind of a bank account is currently heading for Mexico or at least southern California. But despite my bad attitude, the slender leafless twigs of native shrubs catch my attention. I get a smug, warm feeling when I am able to identify native plants just from the look of their bare twigs. Saskatoon’s (Amelanchier alnifolia) reddish-orange twigs almost fool me into thinking that it is Pacific Crabapple (Malus fusca). Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) is easy to identify, with its convincingly dead-looking beige-gray stems and opposite nodes. I should dig out my copy of Winter Twigs (Gilkey & Packard, 1962 Oregon State University Press).

The two species grow across the field from one another. Black Twinberry is keeping company with Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). They are happy in the sopping winter wet.   Saskatoon grows beside Salal (Gaultheria shallon), Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) on somewhat higher ground.

  • Saskatoon is also known as Serviceberry or Juneberry. It thrives in a variety of conditions, from moist, mostly shady conditions to dry, exposed locations. Here by the nursery, it grows wild on the edge of the forest (moist, shady) and its form (easy to see in mid-winter!) is that of a small tree, with a single trunk and horizontal spreading branches. But in an open, sunny spot it is shrubby, with multiple stems. Though it can grow over 20’ tall, it is usually 6-10’ tall. It has small, oval leaves that are serrated at the tips. The leaves tend to be a pleasing blue-green, turning nice shades of yellow to red in the fall. It has very attractive clusters of white-petaled flowers in spring and small, edible purple berries in summer. A wide variety of birds eat the berries.
  • Black Twinberry likes moist to wet soils. Mature height is generally about 9’. In the sun, it grows full and fat; in the shade, tall and lanky. Both hummingbirds and butterflies appreciate the late spring blooms. The small paired yellow flowers look like little trumpets, and give way to two shiny black berries. As the berries ripen, the bracts (petal-like leaves) which hold them turn a striking scarlet-purple. Birds love the berries, but the fruit is inedible for humans. Beside a stream or on a wet hillside, Twinberry’s roots do a good job of anchoring the soil against erosion.

What gift came from the woods today? Besides a warm smugness when I was able to identify a “bunch of ugly sticks”, looking carefully at these dormant native shrubs helped me recognize their uniqueness in the ecosystem. Focusing on nature gave proper perspective of my place in the circle of life. And best of all, the call of the winter woods reminded me of my dad. “Get your raingear on, get out there and conquer the elements!”

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