Each year, American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is, as far as I know, the last native shrub in New England to bloom. The yellow twist-tie-like petals usually appear in October, and make this shrub conspicuous in the forest understory. The blooming can continue for weeks, but by late winter, only yellowish sepals (pictured above) remain in clusters on branches. The leaf buds of American Witch-hazel are fuzzy, brown, and lack protective scales (the last feature is described by botanists as having naked buds).
Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) grows in moist or boggy ground and stands about three feet tall, so it's no wonder I rarely bump into this shrub by accident. But with winter conditions allowing for easy access to otherwise muddy areas, I explored a wetland along the Ten Mile River in Plainville and found a small stand of Leatherleaf. This broad-leaf shrub has evergreen leaves that are less than 2" long. While not conspicuous at a distance, up-close the leaves are distinctive. They diminish in size as they approach branch tips and have undersides covered with scales.
The fruits are five-parted dry capsules, similar in some respects to Swamp Deciduous Dog-laurel. The patch I found was growing among sedge hummocks and a sparse colony of Cat-tails with woody neighbors Sweetgale (Myrica gale), Speckled Alder and Coastal Sweet-pepperbush. Two Wood Ducks (uncommon this early in the year) took flight from open water nearby where Mallards could be heard quacking. Along the margins of the flowing river, Great Blue Heron hunted silently. Warmed by the sun, I crouched in the snow and took in the beauty of it all.
As I've written previously*, Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is the first wild plant that I learned to recognize by smell alone. While simply breathing near a patch of this shrub is a reliable way to notice her in summer, she offers other clues to travelers in the white season.
In winter, Sweet-fern is one of the few shrubs that bears catkins (Speckled Alder is another). These clusters of petal-less flowers bloom in early spring and rely on wind for pollination. Most Sweet-fern plants retain dry reddish/brown leaves that can help identify this plant by sight. The leaves curl up gracefully, and I presume these brittle fingers, if not buried in snow, would make suitable tinder.
*Note: If you took my earlier advice in Foraging Fragrant Leaves: Sweet-fern, and gathered some leaves during the green season, perhaps you are enjoying this post as you sip a cup of Sweet-fern tea.
Oak trees, in the genus Quercus, are common and widespread in New England. They produce mast, called acorns, that is highly prized by many insects, birds, and mammals, including this human. Locally, Scrub Oak (Quercus ilicifolia, also called Bear Oak) is one of the only native shrubby oaks and claims a niche primarily on exposed hills and rocky powerline cuts. As is common among oaks, this species will often have marcescent leaves, which are dead leaves that remain on branches into winter. These leaves are noticeably white on the undersides. Young twigs of Scrub Oak are covered with soft hairs and feature lateral and terminal buds of similar size.
Swamp Deciduous Dog-laurel is a shrub with many names. Other common names include Sweetbells, Leucothoë, Sweetbells Leucothoë, Swamp Dog-hobble and Fetter-bush. Plant guides refer to this shrub by a scientific name: Eubotrys racemosa (in some newer guides) or Leucothoë racemosa (in many older ones) or occasionally others.
However you choose to refer to this plant, I think we can all agree that this wetland shrub has most attractive winter buds. The collections of flower buds on the ends of twigs foreshadow the racemes of white bell-shaped flowers to come. Although in the same family (Ericaceae) as many shrubs with choice edible fruit (including Blueberries, Huckleberries, and Cranberries), Swamp Deciduous Dog-laurel produces inedible five-parted dry capsules, which don't satisfy late-summer hunger but do aid in late-winter shrub identification.