Seeing Nature’s Patterns and Processes

Between the flamboyance of autumn and the silvery finesse of winter, New England squeezes in another season: late November-early December, a gray and unloved time. Unlike its cousin at the other end of winter – Mud Season – this one has no name. And while Mud Season at least brings maple syrup, this one offers little to cherish. Most people just try to endure it, eyes averted, until the snow comes and hides the brown ground, and the world is beautiful again.

I may be one of the few who actually like this odd time of year. Why? More important than it being the end of my busy work season, whew, a time to catch my breath and clean up the office, an opportunity for introspection and quieter forms of creativity…beyond these nice relaxing benefits, the big appeal of this season is that now I, as a landscape designer, can clearly see what’s going on outside: nature’s patterns and processes.

This homeowner understands that trees thrive best in the duff of their own fallen leaves.

No fluff. No intrusive foliage or distracting blossoms. Just form and structure. Clear sightlines. Open views. The shape of the ground, the curve of a hidden stream, how high the September flood actually rose, the colors of naked tree bark, what fruits and seeds remain as winter food on which species, how many mosses are still chugging brightly along in the low light, who in town has been “tidying up” (i.e. removing nutrients from) their forest…fascinating stuff. Now is when the landscape reveals a huge treasure of information – and countless new questions – about how things work.


One major discovery at this time of year has to do with invasive plants. Many non-native species get a competitive advantage by leafing out earlier, and holding their foliage later, than their native neighbors. In New England, burning bush (Euonymous alatus) is a big winner in this contest. If you didn’t notice its insidious spread all summer long, you surely can’t miss it now.


Same with oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculata), which has spent the summer creeping up, over, under, between and around every nearby tree, shrub, fence and shed. Now is a great time – when the vines and their familiar bright berries can be clearly seen – to go bittersweet-hunting, to locate and tag  plants for spring removal, after the sugars that were stored in the roots over winter have been depleted by the leaf-out process.

Note: fortunately, bittersweet is banned from sale in many states (although this hasn’t kept garden centers and farm stands from selling disastrously berry-loaded bittersweet wreaths).


By contrast, English ivy (Hedera helix), which is equally or perhaps more aggressive than bittersweet, is still eagerly being planted in gardens across the country. This despite its classification as a noxious weed in 46 states. Only Oregon has banned it from sale. In early winter, you can see English ivy happy as can be: no competition for sunlight and plenty of room to move!

There’s more to this season, however, than just bad news. My favorite thing about late fall is the opportunity to notice how all kinds of plants arrange themselves. Because these patterns of distribution reveal what nature does on its own, they inform my thinking about what’s possible in my designs, as I work to create landscapes that will thrive with the least need for outside materials and energy. Below are three beautiful patterns that showed up during my recent walk in a nearby conservation area.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is the only holly grows wild in my part of western New England. That this plant holds onto its gleaming red fruits far into winter doesn’t come as news to most gardeners. Neither does the fact that ilex is a dioecious species. (For more great detail about this plant, read Ellen Sousa’s recent post.)

Most interesting to me, though, is how we notice the female and forget all about the male. After all, their flowers and foliage look the same. Only in late autumn can average folks tell them apart. But then, if you pay attention, you might be surprised to see: all on their own, with no help from us, male and female plants often grow in pairs, fairly close together, almost like companions. (Awww…)

And look closely at the photo below: off to the side of the male plant, new baby winterberries are sprouting up. See those light gray twiggy things arranged all in a line? (I nearly tripped over them myself.) These shoots follow the seam between a patch of lowbush blueberry and a solid carpet of hay-scented fern; they clearly weren’t planted accidentally by some bird. Rather, they appear to be emerging from a root, with the tallest one furthest away. (I suppose it’s remotely possible they were planted by some creeping creature who just happened to drop the seeds all in a line… or that many seeds were dropped all around and only these germinated in this particular line…but the root-sprout theory makes more sense to me.)

From the front left corner of this picture, the babies line up toward the mature plant in the back right; you’ll have to take my word about the fruits.

What you can’t see here is that the largest of these sprouts actually has two little berries. This plant is female! Could it be growing from the root of the nearby male plant?? Could roots from the more distant female plant extend this far? Who knows. I sure don’t, but now I intend to pay closer attention next year.

Aside: A lot of people say that winterberries prefer to grow in moist soil. But this field is hot and dry. Hmm.


Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is another plant familiar to many of us. Acid-loving, shade-tolerant, evergreen, a good spreader and often still loaded with fruit at the end of winter, this is a great ground-level companion to mountain laurel, blueberry, azalea and many mosses, capable of growing in a solid drift or weaving its way among other low plants.


Which is the dominant species here…. the wintergreen…

Take a look at this patch of wintergreen. It’s thriving on a slab of bedrock that’s tilted at about 45 degrees. Just imagine how this came to be: a tiny ledge or crack caught a bit of soil…a few mosses took hold, held moisture, decayed, grew and spread…more soil accumulated…a few wintergreen seeds fell from somewhere…the patch kept growing…lowbush blueberries joined the group …and now there’s an oak tree growing in this thinnest of soil. What a perfect snapshot of succession at work.

or the lowbush blueberry? Maybe they form a perfect mutualist symbiosis.

This same little community has caught my eye before. Here you can see it in early summer, from a slightly different angle, the lowbush blueberry dripping with flowers. But I didn’t really notice the marvel of this patch until now, seeing it stripped down to the essentials.

Is this a sort of self-contained, miniature climax community? It hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years…if I can still hike there in the next 25 years, I’ll let you know what happens. In any case just think: what a beautiful addition this sort of patch could be in any number of home gardens and landscapes, even thriving in the merest bit soil (perhaps eliminating the need to import or amend soil).


How does a fern manage to make an exact circle?

A third conspicuous pattern that’s full of information and mystery at this time of year is this collapsed circular heap of old stems. At first glance this seems like it might be the nest of some giant bird, but in fact it’s  interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) in its dormant state. I only know what it is because, again, I noticed it one spring, when the distinctive  clustered spores were virtually shouting the plant’s identity (see the lower photo).

Look how the raised perimeter shows the growing edge of the colony (or is it really just one individual?), while the sunken center reveals where it all got started. The same pattern shows up again and again in this open field, where I notice these ferns are widely spaced, rarely closer than 20 or 30 feet. Is this an accident? Or might the plants’ roots be maintaining their own territory?

Interrupted or hay-scented: is one fern dominant here?

And what can grow inside this circle now? Will the surrounding hay-scented ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) soon penetrate the ring and attack from inside? Or might they keep the circle from expanding more? What I see here is that if I want to include interrupted fern in a garden design, I need to leave room for its circle to expand. Will several clumps grow close together? If I trim back a clump around its edges, will new ferns sprout in the center? Will the circle continue expanding forever or is there a self-limiting maximum?

I don’t know the answers for sure, but I learn so much by seeing how these ferns – and hundreds of other plants – grow when left to their own devices. How they fit within their larger ecosystems: for many plants such information is especially apparent during this drab, unpopular season.

Nocember? Devember? Call it what you will, this is a great time to discover more than you used to know – and more that you’d like to learn –  about the patterns and processes of the natural world.

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