Life still abounds in winter even though most trees are bare, flowers are gone and many birds have migrated. Evergreens, ignored most of the year and outdressed by other trees dazzling us with blazing autumn hues, now take center stage. Their greens and blues feed eyes hungry for color.
Evergreens are also good for the soul. We chase away dreary winter doldrums by decorating our lives with them. Wreaths, pine roping and Christmas trees deck not only halls, but schools, streets and malls.
Evergreen is a term applied to plants that do not lose their foliage at the end of the growing season. (Plants that lose their leaves are deciduous.)
It is not the cold that causes trees and shrubs to lose their leaves but the threat of desiccation. When the ground freezes, a tree is unable draw more water through its roots. Because of the low humidity of the air, a tree would dry out if it retained its unprotected leaves. (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.
Because they retain their leaves year-round, evergreens -which include pines, firs, spruces, cedars, hemlocks and hollies-are invaluable to wildlife for winter cover.
Evergreens often sport berry-type fruit and seed-holding cones. These, and needles, are an important food for resident birds and the few mammals that venture out in the winter sun.
Pines, spruces and firs provide food for birds like 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, evening grosbeak, 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 like the common flicker, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, gray catbird, 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 eastern 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 help people, too. If placed strategically around buildings, these trees actually conserve energy. While other trees are bare, evergreen foliage provides wind breaks. By intercepting cold winds, evergreens can help to reduce heating costs.
Evergreens also help to muffle sounds and reduce the noise pollution reaching a home in the winter months.
Evergreens of the Chesapeake watershed
This is good time of year to evaluate your 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 evergreens native to parts of the Chesapeake watershed. Remember to choose plants that are native to your area and suited to local soil, light as well as 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 or 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)