rhododendrons

Western North Carolina is a hotbed for evergreens.

Evergreen plants have been used throughout human history to enliven spaces during the cold, dreary and often green-free winter. This time of year, Americans are constantly reminded of the holiday spirit as they pass festively decorated trees in stores, businesses and even most living rooms.

While firs and spruce are the most common Christmas trees, the vast majority of alternatives are similar evergreen trees such as pine. Evergreen trees transform a space through their unique shapes and strong fragrances. These trees hold onto most of their foliage during the winter and even for a long time after they have been cut down.

This is the main reason such trees became a holiday tradition in 16th century Germany that quickly spread worldwide. Be warned, however – if left for too long they will leave behind sharp reminders of yuletide joy waiting to penetrate your socks at every opportunity. The Appalachians are believed to have more species of trees than anywhere else in North America, and this region is a hotbed for evergreens.

Even though conifer trees usually come to mind when the word evergreen is mentioned, not all conifers hold onto their leaves year round. Many of our native evergreen plants look very different than the typical conifer. While trees such as hemlocks, pines, firs and spruces take up residence in the area’s mountains at different elevations, we also have a wide variety of smaller evergreen plants as well.

Evergreen plants are generally defined as plants that hold onto their leaves during the cold and/or dry season, as opposed to deciduous plants that shed their leaves at the first sight of trouble. Evergreen plants do discard leaves, however they do so slowly and never all at once.

Scientists believe this helps evergreen plants live in areas with less available nutrients – holding onto their leaves helps these plants conserve energy that would otherwise be tossed aside every fall.

Because they hold onto their leaves during the cold, windy, dry winter, most evergreen plants have specialized leaves to help reduce these threats. The compact needles of most conifer trees, for example, reduce wind damage while also helping the tree hold onto as much water as possible. Many evergreen leaves are also coated in wax or other materials that help reduce water loss.

Most of the rhododendrons and mountain laurels in the area are a great example, and their waxy leaves are a good way to get a close look at this insulation technique. Rhododendrons usually go a step further, and have developed ways of curling their leaves in cold and windy weather to cut down on water loss or frost damage.

The colder the weather, the tighter rhododendrons tend to curl their leaves. Seasoned woodsmen sometimes use these shrubby thermometers to judge the temperature before venturing out into the cold.

Other local evergreenery includes mistletoe and Christmas fern, generally the only ferns still green in the winter (if you look closely, their small fronds bear the shape of a stocking). American holly is another great evergreen, however keep your distance from its sharp leaves when admiring its beauty. A trip into the woods around Sylva will almost certainly lead to a sighting of the common evergreen groundcover known as fan clubmoss or ground cedar.

There are many more evergreen plants in the landscapes around us, all of which generally escape notice in the hustle and bustle of spring and summer.

Take advantage of the opportunity to see some of these interesting plants in the area this winter, as this is the time of year that they are most easily observed.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.