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.
Wine Raspberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) has a stem that sets this shrub apart from other Rubus species. The round stems are densely covered with red, bristly hairs and armed with occasional prickles. Wine Raspberry has pinnately divided leaves (usually with 3 or 5 leaflets) with whitened undersides, similar to those of Red Raspberry. As with Common Blackberry, I was able to find canes holding dried leaves well into winter.
The sweet and satisfying fruits of wild Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) are not available in January, unless you froze or dried some during the previous growing season. It is possible, however, to identify Red Raspberry even in the "dead of winter" (Is there such a thing?), by examining the shrubs' canes, which are round like those of Black Raspberry but are a variable reddish-brown (instead of purple) and armed with much less threatening bristles (instead of hooked prickles).