Seeing Red

clusters of winterberries
The bright red winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

By the calendar, February 2 marks the half-way point of winter, but here in the Midwest, there’s lots of gray sky left in the season. A winter walk can jolt me out of the doldrums, and in February, it’s fun to hunt for red.

I found some on a recent hike at Lydick Bog Nature Preserve in South Bend. The new boardwalk that traverses a shrubby wetland, and another section that overlooks the bog itself provided great vantage points to spot three of my favorite “reds.”

Clusters of bright red twigs springing up on either side of the boardwalk were the first to greet me. The thin bark of Red-osier Dogwood intensifies its color this time of year. The redness is attributed to anthocyanins, the same pigments that create reds in autumn foliage. As sunlight increases in February, so, too, does the red in the twigs. I know when Red-osier is especially bright, winter is losing its grip.

Farther along the trail, scattered throughout the wetlands were cheery “hot spots” of crimson berries snugged tight to the branches of the Winterberry shrub. This native holly is somewhat unusual in that it is deciduous: It drops all its leaves in fall. Most other hollies are evergreen.

The berries originally appear in late summer when the shrub still wears its leafy garb, but by winter, the leaves have dropped and the bright berries stand out against the otherwise drab landscape.

Swamp rose hips
Swamp rose hips (Rosa palustris)

Less numerous in the wetland are the plump “hips” of Swamp Rose. These deep red, berry-like fruits are packed with dry seeds. If you look closely, tiny hairs dot the outside of the fruit. Firm and waxy when they first appear in fall, freeze-thaw cycles soften and wrinkle them, making them more palatable as food for wildlife.

Several American Robins perched on bare tree branches
American robins (Turdus migratorius) perched atop bare trees in the bog.

Overhead, chattering in a nearby tree, a small flock of American Robins waits for me to leave the boardwalk. They may be touted as a harbinger of spring, but these red-breasted songbirds often over-winter in our area where habitats hold a bounty of berries. They exploit the food source and move on.

Perhaps these robins have come to feed on Winterberries and rose hips, snack packs filled with nutrients and fats. One of the birds softly warbles out a portion of its song, “cheerily-cheer-up.”

Buoyed by the walk and the happy reds I spotted; I am cheered.

Evie Kirkwood, February 2022