Ever Green

By Anita Sanchez

The red, orange and gold leaves are gone, turned to crum­pled brown paper. Now, in the dark days of win­ter, the ever­green trees come into their own. They’ve been there all along, of course, hid­den by autumn’s lav­ish foliage. Their green shines bright­ly amid the bare branches.

The spruces cre­ate a geo­met­ric shape, a tall, nar­row tri­an­gle against the sky­line. Pines are ragged, unsym­met­ri­cal, awk­ward in a lov­able way. On the Wood­land Trail, grace­ful hem­locks shade the hill­side. Some­times the trees are frost­ed by snow. Some­times they sing in the wind. But the main thing about ever­greens is that they’re, well, green: ever green.

Not real­ly. Noth­ing lasts for­ev­er, of course. The tree itself can endure for cen­turies, but the leaves have a much short­er lifes­pan. (They’re shaped like nee­dles, but struc­tural­ly they’re con­sid­ered leaves.) An indi­vid­ual pine nee­dle, for exam­ple, lives three years or so, then turns a sick­ly yel­low and falls off the branch. But ever­green trees keep at least some of their leaves green all win­ter, retain­ing the chem­i­cal chloro­phyll in their tis­sues. The plants are mak­ing food — active­ly pho­to­syn­the­siz­ing, going through the process­es of life, even in the dead” of win­ter. This is an incred­i­bly impor­tant adap­ta­tion for plants that live where sun­light is scarce, the cold fierce, and the snow deep.

Noth­ing looks qui­eter and more serene than an ever­green tree in a win­ter land­scape. But even while stand­ing motion­less under an over­coat of snow, a spruce or fir or pine or cedar is busi­ly work­ing, cap­tur­ing any stray gleam of sun­shine to use in pho­to­syn­the­sis. Sun­light, even a pale win­ter ray, is the start to this process, the key that turns the engine. Only a small trick­le of light pen­e­trat­ing the snow is enough to trig­ger the light-sen­si­tive cells and begin the long chain of chem­i­cal reac­tions, turn­ing air and water into sug­ars that nour­ish the plant.

Since water must be avail­able for pho­to­syn­the­sis to hap­pen, the nee­dle shape of the leaves allows them to con­serve water. Cold, dry winds blow­ing across a sur­face rob it of mois­ture (as we can feel on our chapped hands and lips.) Thin nar­row leaves help a tree hoard water. A waxy coat­ing on the nee­dles also helps keep mois­ture from evap­o­rat­ing — botan­i­cal chap­stick, so to speak.

As you walk under the ever­green boughs on Arbore­tum trails, remem­ber you’re not the only liv­ing thing in the stark win­ter land­scape. Those qui­et trees are churn­ing with life.

Winter 2015

Volume 33 , Number 1

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