In December my sweetie and I went for a walk in the Carolina North Forest in Carrboro. It was bright and sunny and one of those unusual warm days…that are becoming less and less unusual I suppose. When looking out around the forest, it seemed dry and dormant. The brown beech leaves were crackling in the slight breeze, the other trees had no leaves, and there wasn’t any green in sight except for some moss here and there. But if you take your eye off its macro lens and zoom in a bit closer, there are many evergreen plants in our Piedmont forests that dot the brown landscape with a burst of color. Some of my favorite plants happen to be winter warriors, braving the elements with their thickened, leathery leaves.

Usnea is a beautiful lichen (a symbiotic relationship between and algae and a fungus). It grows on tree branches from a spreading base and absorbs nutrients and minerals from the air, as it lacks roots to absorb nutrients from soil. Usnea is also known as Old Man’s Beard and is a potent antibiotic with antifungal and antibacterial properties. To properly identify, break open the green part on one of the “branches” and you will see a little thread. If it is white, it is medicinal Usnea. If you have a pink, yellow or any other color thread, this is not the type of Usnea you should use for medicine.

Usnea barbata looking mighty snug on its branchly perch

Another beauty is one of our evergreen wild ginger plants of the Hexastylis genus. Its leaves weather the winter well as they are tough, shiny and leathery. It is unclear to me which species this is without seeing the flower. Around here, there are three evergreen species, each difficult to tell apart without a flower for further identification. If anyone feels they know more about identifying evergreen Hexastylis species in winter I would love to hear your comments or ideas!

Heartleaf (Hexastylis sp.)

Pipsissewa, or striped wintergreen, is one of my favorite plants. It is so cute with its sharply variegated leaves and drooping umbillate flowers. (Of course, no flowers until May or June). Its leaves have been traditionally used as a diuretic, but is not common in the modern materia medica. Perhaps it is because it would require so many leaves to make a medicinal preparation and that’s not very sustainable harvesting! Again, notice the tough, leathery leaves to survive in extreme weather circumstances.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata)

A fairly recognizable plant, our common holly is a trusty evergreen sight amidst a leafless forest.  In a winter forest, the holly has its time to shine, as it usually gets overshadowed by the rest of the green world come spring. However, as we walked further into the Carolina North Forest, the land evened out into a flood plain area and the ground was covered with bright green treasures and it almost looked as if spring had come.

American Holly (Ilex sp.)

Cleavers  are not typically considered “evergreen” but if the weather permits, there will always be these little treasures to be found. The cleavers were co-mingling with some chickweed, a reliable winter edible.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine)

Although not evergreen, the basal rosette of mullein and the fragrant tops of mountain mint were beginning to emerge on the edges of the Carolina Forest and were fun to see.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.)

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

There are still many more common evergreen plants that were simply not present in this particular forest.  Rattlesnake plantain and partridge berry are some of the most darling plants I know and are worth getting to know in addition to the ones I have listed here. The cranefly orchid leaf can also be spotted in the winter, but it is not a true evergreen as its leaf dies back in summer. It has a green upperside and purple underside with lateral veins. I think the winter is a great time to study and learn the plants because there are only so few evergreen that it makes it easy to tell the difference between them. And when you get really good (and maybe you already are), it will be on to winter botany using leaf scars and buds to identify trees without their leaves. Luckily (or maybe not so luckily?) the early spring flowers seem to be showing themselves and it won’t be long until botany enthusiasts are counting stamen instead of leaf scar bundles.