Spend time exploring wet areas in southern New England, and you will likely find a colony of Coastal Sweet-pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). This plant -- also called Summer Sweet -- is known for its strongly fragrant summertime flowers and is easily recognized any time of year by its persisting fruit clusters. The rounded capsules are short-stalked and arranged on an unbranched stem.
To shore up your field identification, check for gray/brown twigs and terminal buds that look something like this:
Winter may not be the time to enjoy the scent of this native shrub, but identifying a colony now ensures that you'll know where to find it in bloom next summer. And even if you don't find one by then, perhaps you'll sniff out this shrub's location when the time is right.
Common Evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis) is another must learn winter plant. Like Common Mullein, this plant is a biennial, and thus found in two forms on the winter landscape. Overwintering rosettes of this plant tend to have extensive red pigmentation and a roughly symmetrical leaf arrangement.
The dead form is a brown stalk, often quite tall, with seed pods covering the tops. The four-parted pods split open to release tiny ripe seeds. On many occasions, I've watched American Goldfinches feeding on them.
Commercial oils produced from Common Evening-primrose seed have brought this plant's name into the cultural spotlight. I can't vouch for the commercial products, but I have eaten and enjoyed the taproot of this plant, before it sends its energy into a flower stalk, as well as the tender rapidly growing flower stalk itself. Maine botanist Arthur Haines discusses other uses for this plant in his book Ancestral Plants (2010).
Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a widespread medicinal plant that is easy to recognize, even in November. As a biennial, Common Mullein can be found in two forms on the winter landscape. First, as overwintering plants with above-ground basal rosettes of fuzzy, whitened leaves.
And second, as conspicuous, standing stalks of plants that completed their life cycle in the previous green season. These stalks are often loaded with yet-to-be-dropped seeds, which in addition to being food for various birds, store the potential for future generations of plants.
Can you find both overwintering rosettes and dried stalks of Common Mullein near you? Look for both along roadsides, on eroded banks, in old fields, and in untended urban lots.
Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum) is a small evergreen fern found on or near -- you guessed it -- rocks. The fronds grow singly from points along a rhizome, rather than from a common center (like Marginal Wood Fern). I found this colony growing alongside a large bounder within a small grove of Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) near the summit of Sweatt Hill in Wrentham, MA. The spore-bearing sori look like fuzzy dots on the backsides of the fertile fronds.