Plants with fall and winter interest

Cold Weather Adaptations for Plants in the Forest

Prepared by Patrick Ryan from a list by the Royal Geographic Society (

As winter sets in here in the North, take a minute to admire the way native plants get through the colder months. Here are the adaptations with photographic examples of each. NOTE: This is not a complete list of forest plants. Thinks of this as a teaser to learn more about plants in your area.

Canada Dogwood with white flowers
Canada Dogwood/Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) Picture by Patrick Ryan

1. Grow Close to the Ground

This reduces damage caused by wind and ice particles. Look to the forest floor for Canada Dogwood (Cornus canadensis), Lowbush Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis idaea) the Clubmosses (Lycopodium species), and Pink Pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia), whose shiny evergreen leaves will wait under snow to green up the forest floor in the spring. These plants are visible until we get several inches of snow.

Cranberry bush with red fruits
Small Leaves. Lowbush Cranberry/Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitus idaea) Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

2. Small Leaves

Conserve water which can be lost through the leaf surface (transpiration). Somewhat same as above, especially Lowbush Cranberry and Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, AKA Bearberry)

3. Shallow Root Systems

Sallow root systems allow a plant to grow in the active soil layer and avoid the permafrost. Very noticeable with our larger trees: Spruce, Birch and Cottonwood. Roots growing right on the soil surface can make walking tricky in the woods, and trees may be more susceptible to blowing over in high winds.

Person snowshoeing in the forest.
Snowshoeing in the forest. Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

4. Grow in Close Proximity to One Another

Each plant acts as a barrier for others from the wind and ice particles. This is quite apparent in the dense Spruce/Hardwood forest here. Even so, an errant wind may take down a random tree in the middle of a dense forest.

Labrador tea with orange leaves
Labrador tea in early August. Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

5. Stem, Buds and Leaves Are Covered in Small Hairs

These small hairs create a layer of insulation for protection against cold temperatures. The first plant I think of is Labrador Tea (Ledum palusris ssp groenlandicum). Ssp is the abbreviation for “subspecies” and you probably guessed that “groenlandicum” refers to Greenland.

Aspens in winter.
Aspens in winter. Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

6. Can Photosynthesize in Extremely Cold Weather Conditions

Some plants store energy despite a lack of sunlight for large parts of the year. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Willow (Salix species) have greenish-yellow bark that allows photosynthesis to continue in winter and produce sugar for energy. There are about 40 types of Willows in Alaska.

Fireweed seeds on plant
Fireweed seeds (Chamerion angustifolium) Photo by Lisa Hupp USFW

7. Develop and Produce Seeds in a Relatively Short Time

This allows for germination to be possible in a small favorable climatic window of time. Very noticeable in our short Summers here. Our Anchorage growing season is usually around 90 days (June, July and August). We sometimes get an early start in May and a short extension into September. Once the Fireweed blooms (Chamerion angustifolium), that is our traditional signal that Summer is over and many plants will be making fluffy “cotton” or interesting seed pods. See my previous post on collecting seed pods.

Lichen on Rocks
Lichen on Rocks Photo by Lisa Hupp USFW.

8. Ability to survive on bare rock (Lichen)

Some species survive where soil doesn’t exist. Lichens are a symbiotic partnership of a fungus and an alga. They’re neither plant nor animal. The fungus provides a structure for the algae to live in, while the algae provide food for the fungus. There are three main types of lichens: Foliose, Fruticose and Crustose. There are upwards of 500 species of Lichens in Alaska. Learn to recognize these alien-looking species when you are out enjoying Nature. You don’t have to be an expert. Just see how many you notice.

Patrick Ryan is an Alaska Master Gardener and the Education Specialist for the Alaska Botanical Garden. A retired elementary school teacher, Patrick is a member of the Anchorage Community Forest Council and sits on the board for Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom.

8 comments on “Cold Weather Adaptations for Plants in the Forest

  1. Thank you for sharing. I love it. Your photos are stunningly beautiful ?

  2. Susan Brusehaber

    Thanks Pat, an excellent reminder as we are again covered in snow and have so long to wait to check for survival of our favorites

  3. #1 and #2 also work well for plants that must survive in warm climates of the Mojave Desert.

  4. Iffet Orbay

    Nice article! Very informative and interesting! Many thanks!
    Nice article! Very informative and interesting. Many thanks!

  5. Excellent review!

  6. Oh, wow too about the “Lichens”! I didn’t know lichens “are a symbiotic partnership of a fungus and an alga.”
    But I was intrigued with the growths on the ancient stones of Avebury and Stonehenge and others we saw on our Sacred Celtic Journey in 2019!

  7. My dad had wanted to drive his motorhome to Alaska and I discouraged it. But he really wanted to go and spoke about it often. His sisters had taken a cruise to Alaska years before and I think that, him hearing of their time there, plus watching Ice Road Truckers on TV, all inspired him to go. Now, reading your post, I am considering going one day—normally I hate the cold.

  8. Usha Menon

    Love reading these articles.I am a retired teacher too. This is very educational and interesting. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!