Although its name implies otherwise, Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern. Rather, it is a flowering shrub in the Bayberry family, Myricaceae, whose leaves bear some resemblance to fern fronds. It does deserve the other half of its common name, however. When Sweetfern’s aromatic leaves are crushed (or just brushed against) a sweet, spicy fragrance can easily be detected.
Male and female Sweetfern flowers are formed separately. At this time of year, the male flower buds, or catkins, running along the stems are very evident, although they become more so in the spring when they expand and dangle in the breeze, distributing pollen (see insert).
Some of the most prolific flowering shrubs in the Northeast are dogwoods. In the spring, their flowers attract attention and at this time of year their colorful fruit stands out. There are many species of dogwood, two of which are Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum). These two shrubs can be hard to tell apart, as they both have white flowers, red stems and similar foliage. In the fall, however, the color of their fruit differs, as does their pith, or central stem tissue. The mature berries of Red-osier Dogwood are dull white and its pith is also white. Silky Dogwood’s blue berries have white blotches, and its stem and branches have a salmon-colored pith.
The fruit of these dogwoods and others is an extremely important source of food for many migrating songbirds, as well as resident birds. Wood ducks, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Robins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and Downy Woodpeckers all consume dogwood berries.
The blossoms of many shrubs are not necessarily big, flashy, strong-scented flowers, especially if they are wind-pollinated and have no need to attract insects. Beaked Hazelnut’s flowers are now blooming – pendant male catkins loaded with pollen and ¼ “- diameter female flowers. The female blossoms should be examined through a hand lens – they are exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that, in hopes of catching pollen grains. One advantage to flowering now, before leaves are out, is that the wind-dispersed pollen has fewer obstructions.
Even with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow on the ground it is possible to find signs, such as pussy willows, that spring really is around the corner. What we call pussy willows are, in fact, the soft, silvery hairs that insulate the emerging spike of flowers, or catkin, within a willow flower bud. A willow catkin consists of all male or all female flowers. The first catkins to emerge in the spring are usually males. The hairs, or “pussies,” that emerge when willow buds first open trap the heat from the sun and help warm the center of the catkins, where the flowers’ reproductive parts are located. This trapped heat promotes the development of the pollen (or in female flowers, the ovules) of the flowers deep within the hairs. Eventually the reproductive parts of the willow flowers – the stamens and pistils – emerge, but until they do, we get to enjoy their silvery fur coats.
Speckled Alder is a shrub in the Birch family that is found growing in wetlands. It is named after the “speckles” on its bark — horizontal lines or lenticels (spongy openings for the transfer of gases). In winter, Speckled Alder branches are distinctive because they carry two kinds of buds as well as last year’s fruit. The male flower buds are in the form of inch-long catkins which appear reddish in winter. They begin to turn yellow in March just before they extend into long, yellow pollen-bearing flowers. The female flower buds are small and drooping just ahead of the catkins on the branch. They look like miniature unopened versions of the seed-bearing fruit they’ll become. Last year’s woody fruit, or “cones” are also present, having opened and had their seeds, or winged nutlets, dispersed by the wind last fall.
Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta) fruits mature in late summer and early fall, but they are much more evident now that most of the leaves have fallen off this deciduous member of the Holly family. Because these shrubs are dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants), only the female shrubs bear fruit. The bright red berries often persist through the winter and provide cedar waxwings, bluebirds and robins with food long after most fruit has disappeared.