How Cold Was It?

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
You know it’s cold when the rhododendron leaves go tubular.

As one of the few broadleaved plants still in leaf over winter, extra precautions are needed.

On the plus side, this evergreen mountain shrub can remain metabolically active all winter long. But that involves water needs (from frozen ground) and water production in photosynthesis (with the risk of cells burst by freezing.)

So rolling the leaves reduces surface area, creating a higher humidity field around the leaf’s lower surface; the top surface is lacquered in a kind of waterproof coating, the cuticle. The substances in rhododendron’s sap (the equivalent of resin in conifers) acts as a kind of antifreeze.

And the tight rolls offer little for snow to settle on, though we have ample evidence in our woods that wet snows have been heavy winter burdens on the gnarled and spindly shoulders of our mountain heaths, creating low tangles that have long been called “laurel hells”. Just try to get through one, especially with a backpack on!

NOTE: Today will be the warmest day in weeks, only to be followed by an ice storm coming our way tomorrow. Doh!

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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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