People passionate about nature

Winter Botany

A few simple plants to look for when there's snow on the ground

This is reprinted from a series published in our 1994 Nature Manitoba News. Text and art (adapted for digital use from illustrations) by Tom Reaume. Enjoy!


There are a couple of ways of getting to know this plant.  You may be out looking for it intentionally, as I was on November 22, or you might discover it burs attached to a pant cuff or matte in your dog’s fur after a walk along the river.

It is known as Cocklebur by weekend botanists.  Linnaeus named it Xanthium strumarium, and your dog calls it something else.

Although described as a coarse annual, Cocklebur achieves a wonderful, sculptural quality in the autumn from its grey-brown, stiffly contoured leaves and the reddish-brown burs, clustered an pointing in several directions, as if undecided about which way to proceed.

The hard, woody burs hold their own little mystery.  I used a knife to cut them open.  In cross-section there is a two-chambered space.  Each of these longitudinal spaces holds a dark grey, paper-thin seed case with a tan-0coloured seed inside.  The pointed end of a case fits neatly into one of the large, external hooked beaks at the apex of each bur.  The two beaks are for the two seed cases.  Under the proper conditions, one seed germinates rapidly; the other after a long delay.

Above: Cocklebur illustrated from a plant growing along the Assiniboine River near the footbridge in Winnipeg.


Great Bulrush (Scirpus validus)

On December 4, 1993, with 20 centimetres of snow cloaking a two-coloured landscape, I found myself to be only six centimetres high-my footprints were as faint as that of a mouse.  I barely broke the tension of the old snow’s compacted surface.

Along the pond’s circular edge, where three months ago dragonflies hovered above the quiet water, I entered a small grove of Great Bulrushes.  Although they towered above me to a height of about 50 centimetres, their graceful arches, like the flexible arms of ballet dancers, were a wonder to behold.  A breeze caused the seed heads, now mostly empty of their imitative genetic codes, to twist like a tight flock of blackbirds descending into cat-tails for the night.

In colourful winter costumes, the children, laughing and stumbling, found pleasure in sliding on the curve scales, using the long keel to steer their way along a slope.  I came across a dark brown nutlet, once tucked beneath a scale on the x-flowers above me, and, carefully avoiding the six thorny bristles, gave it a sharp kick with my boot to how far it would go.

Above: Great Bulrush in winter


Red-berried Elder (Sambucus recemosa)

There are no fads in nature.  Plants and animals are in it for the long journey.  Theirs is a major role, lasting well beyond human moments, but with a life span we can sometimes feel in our bones.
Pairs of Emperor Penguins, nesting on the Antarctic ice, lay their one egg in May at the start of the numbing winter.  This timing is perfect, however, for it ensures their young will be ready to drift northward on the broken summer ice to complete their growth and become independent.
Similarly, the Red-berried Elder prepares its leaves and flowers for rapid spring growth several months ahead of time.
To re-center its world, gently peel back the outer scales of a large winter bud on this shrub.  Inside, it will show you its genius for compaction, miniaturization, planning and readiness.  There are clusters of flower buds and stalks of five, tiny, baby-green leaflets shaped like a human hand and wrist.  Soon these flowers and leaflets will share along with us the electric spring sunlight and warm, midday curls of air.

Above: Red-berried Elder illustrated from a plant in Assiniboine Park