Last week, as I was walked my dog through the woods near my home, I was confronted by a blaze of color. Yes, most of the yellows, golds and reds are gone from the forest as the oaks, hickories, tulip poplars and dogwoods have shed their leaves. But as I walked along the path, I was taken in by robust mountain laurels and hollies.
The evergreens, ignored most of the year, now get the opportunity to show off their greens and blues, feeding eyes hungry for color. Evergreen is a term applied to plants that do not lose their leaves at the end of the growing season. Plants that do lose their leaves are known as deciduous.
It is not the cold that causes trees and shrubs to lose their leaves but the threat of desiccation. Because of the low humidity of the air, a tree would dry out if it retained its unprotected leaves. When the ground freezes, a tree is unable draw more water through its roots. Deciduous plants shed their leaves annually to conserve water.
The leaves of evergreen trees and shrubs have a thick, often waxy covering that prevents the loss of water. The leaves or needles remain alive and on the plant throughout the winter. Evergreens often sport berry-type fruit and seed-holding cones.
Because they retain their leaves year-round, evergreens, including pines, firs, spruces, cedars, hemlocks and hollies, are critical to wildlife for winter cover. The berries, seeds and needles provide important foods for resident birds and the few mammals that venture out in the winter sun.
Pines, spruces and firs provide food for birds such as the black-capped chickadee, Carolina chickadee, cedar waxwing, evening grosbeak, American goldfinch, ruffed grouse, dark-eyed junco, blue jay, rufous-sided towhee, house finch, purple finch, white-breasted nuthatch and Eastern meadowlark. Mammals, such as white-tailed deer, chipmunks and gray squirrels, feast on seeds and needles.
Hollies provide excellent shelter for many species. The fruit is eaten by birds such as the common flicker, gray catbird, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, blue jay, mockingbird, white-throated sparrow, rufous-sided towhee and cedar waxwing. Raccoons and white-footed mice also consume the berries, while white-tailed deer may graze on the leaves and twigs.
Junipers and Eastern red cedars are particularly attractive to cedar waxwings, purple finches and mockingbirds. Hemlocks offer protection to black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals and dark-eyed juncos. The waxy fruit of common wax myrtle is favored by tufted titmice, common flickers, finches, white-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees, gray catbirds and rufous-sided towhees.
Evergreens are beneficial to people, too. If placed strategically around buildings, evergreen trees conserve energy by providing windbreaks at time when other trees are bare. By intercepting cold winds, evergreens can help reduce heating costs.
Evergreens also help muffle sounds and reduce the noise pollution reaching a home in the winter months.
Add Some Green to Your Garden
This is good time of year to evaluate your own yard.
Are there any evergreens mixed in with their leaf-dropping cousins? Or is your entire yard gray and brown?
Consider planting some evergreens this spring. Here is list of native evergreens.
Remember to choose plants native to your area and suitable to your local soil, light and moisture conditions. They will be easier to grow and maintain and provide the best food and cover for wildlife.
American holly (Ilex opaca)
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)
Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)
White pine (Pinus strobus)
Great Rhododendron, Rose Bay (Rhododendron maximum)
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)