Title: Evergreens: Winter's Greenerry

Inkberry bush, photo by Britt Slattery, USFWSLife still abounds in winter even though most trees are bare, flowers are gone and many birds have migrated. It is the evergreens that remind us of this. Ignored most of the year, and out dressed by their deciduous cousins who dazzled us with blazing autumn hues, evergreens now take center stage. Their greens and blues feed eyes hungry for color.

Evergreen is a term applied to plants that do not lose their leaves at the end of the growing season. Plants that do lose their leaves are known as 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. Due to the low humidity of the air, a tree would dry out if it retained its unprotected leaves. Deciduous plants shed their leaves annually in order to conserve water.

The leaves of evergreen trees and shrubs have a thick often waxy covering that prevents loss of water. The leaves or needles remain alive and on the plant throughout the winter. Evergreens often sport berry-type fruit and seed-holding cones.

Because they retain their leaves year-round, evergreens, including pines, firs, spruces, cedars, hemlocks and hollies, are invaluable to wildlife for winter cover. The berries, seeds and needles provide important food for resident birds and the few mammals that venture out in the winter sun.

Northern white cedar, photo by Britt Slattery, USFWSFood and Habitat

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 give 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.

Benefits for People, Too

Evergreens help people too. If placed strategically around buildings, evergreen trees actually conserve energy. While other trees are bare, the evergreen foliage acts as a wind break. By intercepting cold winds, evergreens can help reduce heating costs. Evergreens also help muffle sounds and reduce the noise pollution reaching a home in the winter months.

Evergreens are not only good for the eyes but great for the soul. Wreaths, pine roping and trees deck not only halls, but schools, streets and malls.  We chase away dreary winter doldrums by decorating our lives with them.

To find out what evergreen trees and plants are suited for your property check the Native Plants for Wildlife and Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed at www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake/ or order a copy of the publication by contacting Mary Cordovilla, Chesapeake Bay Field Office, 410- 573- 4591, mary_cordovilla@fws.gov0

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