City Walks – Dead of Winter

Still Hanging On.

Cone flower seed heads

The holidays are over, New Year’s Day is past, and it’s time to acknowledge that the dead of winter is here. A few evergreen plants have kept their needles and leaves, a few berries still hold on, but almost everything is brown and dried up.

Which is not to say everything is ugly, but let’s say the beauty there is, it’s subtle.

Fortunately for the bugs and burbs, more gardeners are taking a low maintenance approach to fall cleanup, and they’re letting plants stand until spring. Seed heads like these Rose of Sharons are left unclipped, so that birds can find a bit of food and bugs can find a bit of shelter through the winter.

Rose of Sharon Seedheads

Some plants have evolved seeds which hang tight until winter, probably giving their wind-borne seeds greater freeder to disburse widely without getting blocked by nearby foliage.

Others, like coneflowers, count on being swarmed by birds and enough seeds getting cast to resprout as the rest are eaten.

And brightly colored rose hips stand out once foliage is dead, encouraging visitors to swallow the seeds and poop them out elsewhere.

But quite frankly it’s hard to know exactly what adaptations are at play much of the time.

Sometimes the goal of a plant is simply to leave seeds exposed to ensure they get a good dose of cold weather needed for germination. And often flowers have already lost their seeds, and they’re just hanging on.

It’s very possible there is no evolutionary adaptation involved at all, other than a parallel to laziness. Plants may not clean up in winter simply because they don’t need to.

Bad science popularizers and people with an agenda overwhelmingly treat every aspect of a species as a development toward some specific goal. But the reality of evolution is that it often needs a strong pressure to create something or delete it. There may not be a big reason for many plants to lose their flowers, so they will just sit there doing nothing until new spring growth begins.



  1. We have a few lovely red Japanese maple bushes/trees (Acers as the say in the UK). They look spooky now, all brown and grasping with their twiggy fingers.

  2. With the leaves mostly gone I can see things normally hidden in the woods, like squirrel nests  and deer scrapes. There’s a lot more than meets the eye most months of the year. 🙂

  3. I figure some plants aren’t adapted to anything at all in winter because they’re annuals in my climate.

    I have a row of swamp mallows in my rain garden and I don’t think anything here eats their seed pods. Missouri Department of Conservation says ducks and quail eat the pods. I’ve never seen a quail here and we don’t have any ponds nearby so no duckies.

  4. We have so many huge evergreens that I don’t mind seeing the extra light provided by the maples dropping all their leaves.  That & all the fruit trees provide lots of visual entertainment as they change all year.

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