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Wild Side: Many plants still green in November

Walking ferns with pointed leaves growing on a moss-covered limestone boulder. (Dan Wilcox photo)

Last year at this time the polar vortex was bearing down on us. We had three or four inches of snow and temperatures were about 20 degrees below normal. After a balmy October and a few frosts, this year’s November is starting out mild.

November is a great time to hike now that most of the leaves are down. Last week I was hiking in the upper reaches of Lost Creek in southern Pierce County. There were no bothersome mosquitoes or stinging nettles.

What struck me was all the green still showing at this time of year. In addition to the stately white pines on the steep slopes and nasty buckthorn with green glossy leaves invading in many places, there were many smaller plants still showing green.

Brook trout were spawning on redds that they had swept out on the gravel stream bottom between mounds of bright green watercress. Watercress is a flowering plant originally from Europe that grows abundantly in limestone springs and creeks. In the spring the peppery-flavored leaves are good in salads but this time of year even the newer growth is rather bitter.

Walking ferns, Asplenium rhyzophyllum, are very distinctive evergreen ferns. They have simple leaves that are often long, tapering to the tips. The leaf tips can generate roots and a new plant, allowing the ferns to “walk” over the surface of moss-covered rocks. It seems they were camped out on top of most of the larger boulders along Lost Creek. They are found in damp shady sites on limestone in the Driftless Area and along the Niagara Escarpment limestone in Wisconsin into Door County.

Maidenhair ferns, Adiantum pedatum, are still showing green yet this year although they aren’t evergreen. Some have turned bright yellow. They are beautiful ferns with small leaflets growing alternately on slender stalks. Maidenhair ferns grow in deciduous woods throughout eastern North America.

Floating fern, Azolla mexicana, was floating in quiet pools. It’s a small fern that can easily be mistaken for duckweed. This small fern grows mostly along the Mississippi River.

Running club moss, Lycopodium clavatum, was clambering among the rocks at the base of cliffs. It has erect leafy stems growing from horizontal stems. Lycopodium species grow in northern woods throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Extensive patches of evergreen river horsetail, Equisetum fluviatile, were growing in the sand and gravel floodplain areas. Also known as ‘scouring rush’ for their tough silica-rich stems, plants in the Equisetum genus were once used to scrub pots and pans. Able to grow on low-nutrient sites, Equisetum species are widespread in North America.

Bright green patches of Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pennsylvania, were growing in openings in the woods. This fine-textured sedge grows in short clusters and spreads by rhizomes to form a lush carpet. It grows in forested areas throughout much of eastern North America.

Liverworts were growing close to the stream, pasted on the rocks in shady places.  They are a bit dark this time of year but still green. They were growing along with many species of mosses. There are about 140 species of liverworts and 388 species of mosses in Wisconsin. It will take some study to learn more about these small but fascinating plants.

It’s great to see all the green plants this time of year knowing that snow will be here soon. Botanizing and hiking is fun exercise for the mind and body. There’s a long tradition of hiking and botanizing here in Wisconsin going back to John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

I fondly remember hikes with Dr. Robert Freckmann leading our botany class at UW-Stevens Point. Dr. Freckmann taught plant taxonomy and agrostology (the branch of biology dealing with grasses) at UW-Stevens Point for 32 years. Starting with one cabinet and about 1,000 plant specimens in 1969, Dr. Freckmann and Dr. Frank Bowers built the herbarium into the third largest in Wisconsin, currently with over 200,000 specimens. Now you can study the Flora of Wisconsin, a collaborative effort between the herbaria of the UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and other Wisconsin herbaria at:

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at

--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist