Nature Table for December
Things have really quieted down lately. Temperatures have dropped, and a blanket of snow lays across the ground, signaling stillness and silence to the natural world. For the next few months, most things will be frozen in a state of perpetual hibernation/meditation until springtime rolls around. Our new wintry landscape is not completely devoid of life, however: hardy birds, hungry mammals, and harried humans will carry about their hustle and bustle thanks to adaptations that make survival through the winter months a possibility.
In addition to the creatures who brave the snowy weather, there is one other sign of unfrozen life dotting the landscape. Evergreen trees, fascinating exemplars of evolution and adaptation, cast their green-clad branches against cloudy, snow-filled skies during what’s supposed to be the off-season for local plant life. The strength that it takes to remain green throughout the winter is almost unbelievable, and humans have a long history of fascination with the winter green of evergreens. In fact, the magic that such trees are believed to have had is at the root of the tradition of bringing trees indoors at Christmas!
So how is it that evergreens maintain their green year-round, while deciduous trees cycle from leaves to bare branches annually? The magic is in the evolution of evergreen needles. Scientifically speaking, evergreen needles work just like deciduous tree leaves – they absorb sunlight to fuel photosynthesis and work to keep trees alive. Unlike the leaves of deciduous trees (think maple and oak), however, evergreen needles have a special waxy coating that helps them to retain water year-round. Rather than drying out when the landscape cools and freezes, evergreen needles retain moisture and keep their color. Instead of losing needles seasonally, evergreen trees endure an endless cycle of needle loss and regrowth, much like humans experience with hair.
Evergreens have adapted their special needle-preserving magic over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Research has found that evergreen trees originated in the earth’s northern hemisphere, far enough away from the equator that they needed to be able to survive the comparatively short growing season and shorter daylight hours. Eventually, evergreens began to grow needles (essentially tightly-rolled leaves) with waxy coatings, and over time, numerous species have spread all over the colder regions of the earth.
During early winter, evergreens are significant not only because of their ties to Christmas, but because of what they symbolize. Awake and alive amongst an otherwise dead or dormant landscape of trees and plants, evergreens are beacons of life and light during the most difficult time of year. While daylight hours are short, temperatures low, and storms heavy, evergreens stand as reminders of the value of resilience and the need for patience as the earth moves through its natural rhythm.
Evergreen trees play an important role within the local landscape year-round. The tips of their youngest branches are perfect browsing snacks for deer, their thick outer bark protects a porcupine’s favorite green inner bark treat, and their needles provide shelter for all sorts of creatures (even wild turkeys!) when the snow comes. Even humans can find enjoy a treat sourced from an evergreen (try pine needle tea with honey!). This month’s nature table includes sprigs collected from a very wide variety of evergreens commonly found in western Massachusetts, including:
- White pine
- Red pine
- Pitch pine
- Balsam fir
- Colorado fir
Some seasonal and evergreen-themed books to support the deepening of an understanding of evergreen magic include:
Winter Trees by Carole Gerber
Evergreens are Green by Susan Canizares
Night Tree by Eve Bunting
The Littlest Evergreen by Henry Cole
Where Would I Be in an Evergreen Tree? by Jennifer Blomgren
Christmas Farm by Mary Lyn Ray
Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent
A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.