One Less Mystery in This World

A few days after a new snow, the sprinkling of detritus that mars the carte blanche surface is at first distressing, as if someone has come along and scribbled in your new notebook–bits and pieces of the shed epidermis of dormant trees and shrubs speckle the whiteness; crumbling bits of soil mar the perfect plane especially at the base of the road banks; marcescent, late-falling leaves aggregate in every deep depression of our footprints.

Most notably, though, it has been a regular unknown winged form of plant material, a lovely little shape on the snow, that I have wondered about and not until this week investigated. I have a partial explanation now, and there is one less mystery in the world. I don’t know quite how to feel about that.

The tiny forms on the fresh snow show up rather universally as we walk our walks, mostly under a forest canopy of mixed hardwoods. As for finding these little botanical dingbats always near pines, beech, rhododendrons or other forms that in places predominate, I have been unable to connect them to their source in that way.

But I was determined, finally, a month after the Big One of December, to at least get a photograph of these tiny forms before snow melt–to bring the image home, and hopefully, sleuth out an explanation. So yesterday, I carried the little Canon in a coat pocket, walked very slowly, eyes to the ground to examine every step. Someone watching from a distance would have thought I’d lost my keys in the snow.

I once was snow-blind: but now, I see!
I once was snow-blind: but now, I see!

I began to notice that in some atypical places, the tiny tripartite “fleur de lis” where deposited less as if wind-scattered with one or two per square foot and more as if they’d been left in some kind of aggregate form, with dozens in a single palm-sized patch. I had previously thought them to be bud scales or bracts of some kind, so finding them in denser collections dispelled that notion at least as the sole explanation for their distribution.

When my perceptual search image changed in this way, my biased conceptual blind spots vanished. The scales fell from my eyes, as it were, and I saw what had been right before my eyes, had I taken the time to see, across the snows of our decade of winters on Goose Creek.

I’ve rambled long enough: the tiny shapes in my observation are the “scales” of alder cones (the shrub’s female flowers–left image). You can see many photos of the “cones” on this google image page, but I haven’t found anywhere a dissected cone that reveals the little winged bits that make them up. The right-hand image came from the left-hand cone, crushed.

I’d thought almost all of our alders were along the creek. I must be wrong about that, as we find these winter shapes in snow along the “New Road” and the “Middle Loop” as well, some distance from Nameless Creek. With more observation, I may discover that there is more than one source for similar organic duff on fresh snow. And I’m thinking I’ll get more opportunities to explore this hypothesis before this moist-cold winter is done.

NOTE: I’d be interested to hear from you if you find these little shapes in snow where you live. Let me hear, send me a picture to post! — Fred

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. They are very similar, but we have few if any birches here. Their “cones” also are a couple of times longer than wide, while the ones that leave these three-part bits on the snow are oblong. Birch and alder are relatives in the family Betulaceae so no surprise they have similarities. Scratch around inside your birch bits to see if you have anything like my tiny fleur-di-lis. Could be!

  2. Fred – our birch bits definitely have a fleur-de-lis shape. Maybe I’ll try to get some pics for you. I don’t think there are very many birch trees in the NRV – we were told by a tree expert that we probably have more birch trees in our yard than the rest of the NRV combined.

  3. As I confessed, I think I only have the mystery half-solved, so other depositors of the little leavings on the snow remain to be revealed. I’m happy for any sleuthing you might do. And it will perhaps open the eyes to a few others to see tiny but interesting details easily missed!

  4. Marcescent?? Had to look that one up! “Withering or remaining attached to the stem”. Thanks for the new word, Fred – don’t know how long I’ll remember it, though!

  5. I had settled on birch bits, and fleur de lis is most certainly what comes to mind, but I don’t know if I’d know a grey birch and will have to pay more attention, so thanks!

  6. With me commenting “These forms of fruit scale belong to the grey birch”, I was referring to the illustration in the link that followed in my comment above, rather than your photograph.
    It seems to me that the birch scales in your photo appear to be more in the form of the yellow birch than the grey birch.
    I direct your attention to the grey birch because they do have the downward curving shape similar to the fleur de lis, which you specifically mention. Your home is within the range of both species, and according to the USDA range maps, a few others!