Many people view winter as a sterile, cold, miserable time of the year. A time when the smartest thing to do is hide out in the house until spring. I sometimes think like this, too. I am no fan of the icy winds that burn your cheeks and freeze finger tips. I prefer the warming spring days, the hot sun of summer, and the cooling breezes of fall. However, now that I am your new Naturalist, I see it as my duty to appreciate every season, even the bitter cold one…
So come along with me as we explore the Loess Hills ecosystem and its’ inhabitants in the winter! Should be an adventure!
A thick blanket of snow on the ground acts as important insulation, keeping all the life that hides on and under the ground just a little warmer until spring.
Now that we are officially past the winter solstice (Dec. 21, 2018) winter is in full swing. The days are short and the nights are long. Although, technically after the solstice the days are getting longer by a few seconds each day! Hang on to that thought, and each day you will notice those few more seconds worth of precious sunlight.
We got a nice heavy snowfall early this December, tree branches were blanketed, the ground was insulated, and hoar frost decorated everything with morning crystals.
Braving the cold long enough to snap some pictures, I was delighted to see the sparkle of morning sunlight on the wonderful crystal formations that make up hoar frost.
If you are wondering why something as magical and beautiful as this would have such a rude name, let me explain. Hoar frost is named so, because of the way the ice crystals form on the edges of anything outside, they stick way out and make everything look gray and fuzzy. “Hoary” means gray or white with age.
These crystal formations make the stem look gray and fuzzy from afar, but look like crystal thorns up close.
Here in Iowa we also have a hoary bat that has shimmery silver fur, which is where it got its name from.
Look how cute she is!! It looks like she has a fluffy silver mane!
Now the unseasonably warm weather has melted all the snow away. We no longer have the ice crystal wonderland to look upon in our Hills, but without the covering of snow we can discover a whole new side of winter.
Let’s check out what kind of plants were hiding under the snow.
Most of our plants in the Loess Hills have of one of three winter strategies. One, they have gone all the way through their lifecycle, have died and are depending on their offspring or seeds to sprout in the spring, we call these annuals. Two, they put all their life energies down into their roots, and will resprout in the spring as the same individual, these are perennials.
Our Big Bluestem grass is a good example of a perennial. In early summer, the plant will use stored energy in its roots to send up new shoots.
Three, the plants may stay green all winter, with some energy in their roots as well. These are mainly perennial cool season plants. We call them cool season because they do most of their growing in the spring and the fall, and take a break in the heat of the summer, and the frozen winter.
Here is an example of a sedge that is native to the Loess Hills, it is still green in the middle of winter, and is a cool season plant. You can also see that the moss is still green in this picture. Depending on how much damage these plants take from frost, they could stay green all winter!
This isn’t the end of our winter discoveries, only just the beginning. Next time we will search the hiking trails and forest floor to see what animals are toughing it out during our Iowan winter!