Seeking Winter’s Beauty

Nature’s beauty is spare and uncomplicated in winter.

In the Upper Midwest, there’s little that isn’t hidden under layers of snow in January. What remains is pared down to basics: bare branches, open seed pods and stripped down stalks. Their lines are clean, sharp, punctuated by frozen fruit and picked-over seed heads.

Prickly seed heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Plump apples of the dwarf Tina Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’).

January’s color palette is simple: white, black, shades of brown, berry reds and green hues of conifers. Cloudless skies range from deep to powder blue during daylight, softening to a blue tint after sunset, and on moonshine nights, the snow glows with a cold, blue light seen only in midwinter.


Tart fruit of the nonpoisonous staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

Male downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

To find winter’s beauty requires ignoring the persistent desire to “just go back inside” to warm up! It is necessary to open one’s senses to the more subtle signs of life: perhaps you’ll hear the call of a black-capped chickadee, the tap-tap of a woodpecker looking for food, or the soft hoots of courting great-horned owls. Maybe you’ll spot the showy red of sumac fruit or plump crabapples. Perhaps you’ll touch the satiny inner lining of a milkweed pod, or the prickly seed head of a black-eyed Susan. If you’re fortunate enough to have native grasses growing nearby, stop for a moment and inhale their sweet, ripe scent — a lingering gift of autumn. Whenever you go outside, try to be open to winter’s spare beauty so very different from its abundance in spring, summer and autumn. Already the days are lengthening and the the sun is warmer. Winter will soon give way to spring.

A quiet place to observe winter’s beauty.

Milkweed Seeds

Last summer, hummingbirds, butterflies and bees nectared in the pale pink blossoms of common milkweed that grows in our back garden.  Now in mid-November, the thick, fibrous stalks and leaves have died back.  Last week, the rough, oval pods split open and released their small, coffee-brown seeds, each one surrounded by an arc of silk to sail it on the wind.  They seem such delicate creations to be floating November’s raw skies and, for me, symbolize the beauty and life that will return next spring.

The delicate-looking seeds of common milkweed escape their pods.

The delicate-looking seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) escape their pods.

Before the pod opens, the milkweed seeds are tightly arranged in orderly rows around a central core.

Before the pod opens, the milkweed seeds and their silky “parachutes” are tightly arranged in orderly rows around a central column.

Last summer a bumblebee fertilized the flower that formed the milkweed pod I photographed above.

Last July, a bumblebee fertilized the blossoms that became today’s seeds.