Autumn’s Carpet of Small Plants

Tulip-shaped leaves and dusty blue fruit (inedible) mark the Blue Cohosh. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Charlotte and I received one of our all-time favorite Christmas presents in 1977, a book titled Gnomes, written with great imagination and illustrated beautifully by Rien Pourtvliet. It was given to us by the Jon Kordon family, people who were sensitive to nature and the world around them. We continue to marvel at how accurately the various facets of nature are depicted from page to page in this masterpiece.

Throughout the book the miniature Woodland Gnomes are deeply concerned with saving what is left of nature’s treasures, precisely what an increasing number of thoughtful and sensitive people are doing today. What excites my imagination is the Gnomes’ close-up view of the small plants growing on the woodland floor. How I enjoy getting down on my knees, to the very level of these miniature and imaginary creatures, to marvel at the exciting changing autumn colors, subtle though many may be, of the tiny native plants.

Thousands of pleasurable hours during the past 47 years of my life have been spent in the Mixed Northern Hardwood and Boreal Forests, primarily in Door County, matching closely those environments favored by the Gnomes. The virtual carpets of Reindeer Moss (actually a lichen), replenished in their moisture content by the late September rains, and now “standing tall,” appear like a thin layer of snow on the ground bordering some trails in the Boreal Forest. Mixed in with the Reindeer Moss are patches of Twinflowers and Canada Dogwoods, or Bunchberry, plants slowly changing into their bright fall reds, pinks and maroons.

Shiny green to maroon leaves and bright red berries highlight this rotting log. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The shiny red clusters of fruits of the Bunchberry plants have long been eaten by various wild creatures. Those plants with four leaves are in their first year. Come next spring these plants will sport six leaves and will produce their unusual flowers followed by the fruits. Surprisingly the very small Twinflowers are woody shrub-like perennials. Fittingly, one of their old-time colloquial names was Deer Vine. Occasionally you see one-to-two-foot-long leafy vines growing over the moss-covered ground. Given time these will eventually produce the highly fragrant “twin” pink bell-shaped blossoms.

I learned long ago that the best time for locating wild Asparagus plants is in the fall when the plants turn to a soft golden-yellow color and stand out clearly in the landscape. Another plant whose fruits are relished in later July, the Low-bush Blueberry, has leaves that change to a tell-tale flaming pink that’s hard to miss. What a striking addition these October leaves are to the rich, jeweled mosaic of the ground cover in the Boreal Forest.

An old rotting log can provide a perfect growing medium for many small plants, mosses and lichens. One plant that takes well to this unusual but picturesque environment is the Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens. The oval, shiny, evergreen leaves may turn to a deep maroon in later fall. One nibble of a leaf or the attractive red fruit will reflect its strong refreshing wintergreen flavor. These widespread plants do especially well in sandy acidic soil. By the way, the young leaves of early summer are fleshy and tender compared to the rather leathery ones of fall and winter. Nevertheless the flavor will still be there. Another name for this common wildflower is the same as one of my favorite boyhood chewing gums, Teaberry.

Small cross-shaped Twinflower leaves, four-petaled green and maroon leaves of first-year Bunchberry plants and fine-leaved branching Reindeer Moss produce a lovely autumn carpet in the Boreal Forest. Photo by Roy Lukes.

It’s unusual to hike in many Door County woods during this season without coming across the Zigzag Goldenrod, one of the last of a dozen or so goldenrod species to blossom in our county. The comparatively wide and toothed leaves suit the plant well for growing in shaded woods that have far less sunlight reaching the small plants than do various open habitats where the Canada Goldenrod, for example, thrives and can become invasive. Occasionally in fall the leaves of the Zigzag Goldenrod can take on fascinating variegated patterns and colors.

One of my favorite wildflowers of this area, the Blue Cohosh, saves its most interesting colors and fruit for the fall season. The lovely leaf shape of this 12-to-24-inch plant always reminds me of the foliage of the Tulip Tree, not native to our region. Its blossoming period coincides with many of our attractive and welcome spring wildflowers including Trilliums, Jack-In-The Pulpits and others. Believe me, the tiny greenish blossoms of the Blue Cohosh don’t gather much attention or turn many heads. However, enjoy the beauty of its diminutive blossoms with a hand lens and surely you will look for them each spring.

The plant’s attractive leaf color change – along with the ripening of its dusty-blue, grape-like fruits – is difficult to overlook. The rigid straw-colored stalk of the plant continues to hold the inedible fruits even above the snow during some winters. That is when its attractiveness can’t be overlooked. Even though the fruit appears to be highly edible, the exact opposite is true. Even wild mammals and birds won’t touch the fruit which contains alkaloids and glycosides, making them very bitter to the taste, causing stomach cramps and even dermatitis with some people who handle the leaves and fruit.

This fall, when the Sugar and Red Maples, the Staghorn Sumacs, along with the White Ashes and Red Oaks, so vividly color the landscape and draw much attention, hike into a cool Northern Mixed Hardwoods or Boreal Forest. Gently lower yourself to the ground so that you will be on the same level with the age-old Woodland Gnomes and enjoy some of the loveliest colors of the season that you have ever experienced. These magical and mystical little “people” will welcome you with broad smiles and open arms.