Finding color in the winter woods

Berkshire naturalist Thom Smith revisits a favorite winter walk.

What a difference a year makes. Thanksgiving morning, 2016, with camera in hand I hiked through the woods around Wahconah Falls, carefully avoiding the gorge and falls, as I was alone and the rocks were very slippery. It had snowed the previous day and night, and I was on a quest for BTWBerkshires to photograph evergreen ferns under the proper conditions — snow

It was a lovely day in these almost primeval Berkshire woods, totally quiet except for water rushing over the boulders below, and dee-dee notes of a small flock of black-capped chickadees that kept an eye on me. And for most of my time in this wonderland, they were never out of sight. If I only had a pocket full of sunflower seeds, we all could have had a snack.

I knew, from the previous summer, that there would be young evergreen ferns hugging the base of hemlock trees and a few would probably be visible if I was persistent. I might even find a Christmas fern attractive enough after being flattened with snow to photograph.

Just why some ferns stay green throughout the winter months while most others turn yellow or brown according to species and shrivel, I don’t know. Among more than 50 kinds of ferns in The Berkshires, only a few remain green. In these woods three keep their green until new growth arrives following the final spring thaw.  Least common in these woods is the rock cap polypody that is named after its habit of covering or capping rocks and boulders. This relative of the resurrection fern found so commonly in the south resembles an undersized Christmas fern, a more common evergreen fern seen here. There are a few stories about why this plant is so named.  One is because it is still green thru Christmas. It was used by our early settlers as a holiday decoration. And its small pinnae or leaflets on the frond resemble a Christmas stocking.

Evergreen wood fern is, in my opinion, the most delicate of the three. When used commercially in flower arrangements it is often called “Fancy Fern.” Like the others I found on this day, it prefers shade and in return give color in places to the white forest floor.

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