The literary naturalist Loren Eiseley described the way vegetation reveals its secrets in the fall and winter, when the lush growth of summer is reduced to the freeze-tolerant mechanical parts of stems, bark, wood, leaves, fruits and seeds. Cold weather frees us of the obscuring effects of lush growth, chlorophyll, sap, buzzing insects, heat and humidity that can make the natural world somewhat overwhelming during the growing season. The ecosystem is simplifying itself now, giving us a better chance to understand. Many dried fruits are bursting open to reveal what’s been secretly developing inside for several months. The split pods, hooks, needles, buds, dried fibers, thorns and seeds are there for the viewing, like an elaborate machine that has been disassembled into its component parts for the annual overhaul.
In the dormant season you can see what makes nature tick, what structures were used to pull off that phenomenal pulse of growth in spring and summer. The ribs on the back of each leaf, like a ship’s masts, that have held up the blade to the maximum exposure of sunlight since leaf-out last spring. That freshly fallen acorn on a bed of red and yellow leaves just begs for closer examination. The row-upon-row of scales on its cup have been developing for its fall debut on the forest floor. It’s essentially an embryo with an attached packet of food to get it started on its way to becoming an oak tree--if the local squirrels, deer or turkeys don’t intervene.
The burst milkweed pod surrounded by an explosion of seeds, with silky, silvery down attached, is an ephemeral treat that won’t survive the coming snow, wind and ice. Its down may be captured to help warm a mouse’s protected nest this winter. Try to resist the temptation to hibernate in your own warm nest as our landscape cools down. There’s much to discover in Missouri’s dormant season. It’s one of the great benefits of living in a temperate climate zone.