I belong to the New York Fern Society, a group that meets monthly at the New York Botanical Garden. it's a wonderful group of very nice, very knowledgeable people - and not just about ferns, but about many topics in botany.
For the months of January and February, we don't have regular meetings. Instead, some of us go on informal walks through the grounds of the Botanical Garden. We met on January 3 and strolled through the forest and the Conservatory.
In the winter, plants are dormant and the above-ground parts of herbaceous plants have died back, so one might think there isn't much to see. But trees give us plenty to see in the winter months! Silhouettes show us the growing habit of different species. You can look closely at bark, it is different for each species, and often different for the same species depending on how old the tree is. Some species, such as American beech (Fagus grandifolia, Fagaceae, seen in the background of the next photo), hold on to their dead leaves through the winter months. This makes them easily recognizable in the winter.
Some species even flower in the cold weather. The witch hazels were blooming beautifully. This is the Asian species, Hamamelis mollis. If the sun is out and the flowers warm up a bit, they are very fragrant. There are several cultivars and hybrids that vary in size and color of flowers. All are beautiful, in my opinion.
One of the only fern species still in leaf in the winter is the marginal wood fern, Dryopteris marginalis. Always remember to turn a fern frond over to see if its reproductive structures (the sori) are present, this way you can make a positive identification of the species.
In my New Year's day post, we saw the bark of the Kentucky coffeetree. Here is a view of a mature specimen chock-full of fruits. I tried collecting the bean pods for teaching my botany class, but could find very few on the ground. This species holds on to its fruit until the end of the winter. I will have to revisit the tree in the spring to get some good fruit samples.
This is one of several species that is considered to be an evolutionary anachronism. The tough large fruit are not edible by any species that live in North America now. It is believed that the seed dispersers were one of the many Pleistocene mega-fauna that are now extinct - mammoths, mastodons or giant sloths, for example. Other trees that fall into this category are honey locust and Osage orange.
Before the snow began, we finished our forest walk and went into the Conservatory. The Conservatory was built in 1902 and is a New York City landmark. The collections are grouped into biomes, such as tropical rainforest and deserts. The Conservatory also has special collections, including palms, aquatics and carnivorous plants.
As you walk from room to room in the Conservatory, you get a good sampling of the species of each biome. At different times of year of course, different species will be in flower or fruit.
Cinchona is a genus from which we get a very effect drug against malaria - quinine.
Theobroma cacao is known for giving us chocolate. But I find it interesting for a botanical character that is not common in the temperate biome. The flowers and fruit of chocolate demonstrate a characteristic called caulifory - they grow directly from stems and trunks. This is common in the tropics. In our temperate biome, one of the only species that has this characteristic is the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). It is likely an adaptation to make the flowers and fruit accessible to pollinators and seed dispersers, and it occurs in many plant families. I am not sure why cauliflower has the same root word, it does not seem to me to be a good example of cauliflory.
It is tempting to stay home in the warmth on a snowy day, but you miss out on some real beauty if you do that! Make sure to venture out this winter and see the beauty of our plants while they are dormant. And if you need to warm up, pop into the Conservatory and take a mid-winter visit to the tropics.