Nine-Minute Naturalist: December Details

By David,

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December Details

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!

The month of December is magical to the senses as well as the imagination. The cold wind that blows in early December is seasonal while the same wind that blows in February is accursed. A snowstorm forecast in December is a dream while the same storm in January is a nuisance. The revelry and anticipation of this final month is exceptional. This Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on the environmental attributes that makes December unique.




My focus, once the calendar flips to December, is towards the tree tops. Here rests the plant that defines the Christmas season best to me, mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant species that covers three families and boasts over 1300 species worldwide. One thing all mistletoe plants have in common is that they are parasitic although most mistletoe species are actually a hemiparasite, meaning they are capable of some photosynthesis. They begin their lives as sticky seeds that attach to branches of trees or shrubs via flying through the air or hitching a ride from a bird friend. They attach to plant hosts and siphon off water and nutrients in the quest for life. It penetrates the bark via a structure that would act as a root called a haustorium. The act of kissing under the mistletoe seems to have originate in England. In the 1500’s, a painting shows King Henry VII at Westminster Hall with many kissing boughs hanging from the ceiling. Many 18th century prints depict mistletoe hung in taverns, coffeehouses, and kitchens throughout Europe. The custom crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and showed up in scientific and cultural sources. Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book describes the popular tradition and Virginia’s William Byrd, a founder of Richmond, wrote directions for collecting and drying mistletoe. Mistletoe can be found at various parts of Wintergreen but most commonly in the Stoney Creek portion of the property. Look for ball shaped green masses up to 3 feet wide in the bare tree branches of oaks or any variety of our woody plants.


Needle ice


The next place my focus turns is to my feet. The weather has changed enough to find one of my favorite features of December, needle ice. With the constant flux between warmer days and cold nights brings such a possibility. Since soil takes longer to cool than air, the early stages of winter are perfect for this phenomenon. Freezing temperatures in the air will cause the warmer soil to begin to freeze. Water expands when it freezes causing the ice to fill the soil gaps and expand upward. As it continues to freeze, it draws water up through the soil by capillary action forming tiny ice spires. Our soils at Wintergreen, full of pebbles and rocks contain pores just wide enough to make this capillary action work perfectly. A walk along the Old Appalachian Trail near the Laurel Springs access points in December will give great illustrations of this unique feature of our environment.

The cold weather that causes needle ice also draws my primary attention in December. I love snow and it has been quite awhile since we have been able to call Wintergreen a winter wonder land but December brings new hope. While December is not the month for most of our major storms, large snow storms in December are a possibility. December 18-19, 2009 was the date of the 15th largest snowstorm in Virginia history. The three biggest airports in our region all recorded their December record of over 23 inches on that date, providing a white Christmas. Being at the edge of two climate regions as distinct as the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont makes the winter storm options fascinating. Add an elevation change of approximately 3000 feet from Devils Knob to Stoney Creek, the resulting temperature gradient means different conditions within the same storm. The beauty of living at Wintergreen is that if you do not like the conditions feel free to journey to another part of the property and you are bound to find conditions more suitable to your liking.

December is the month where winter is new and fresh. Our minds are filled with the possibilities the upcoming winter months hold.  Do not fail to find the possibilities in our environment at Wintergreen. Find some mistletoe to bring into your home to kiss loved ones beneath. Walk a trail loaded with needle ice. Be sure in your busy holiday season to make December a month you appreciate the woods at Wintergreen.

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