8 winter woodland mysteries

Can you spot these eight woodland mysteries on your next forest walk?

Scarlet elf cups
Published: December 26th, 2021 at 6:36 am
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Venture into the British woodland in January, and although what at first may seem bleak and bare, you'll soon discover a beauty and a clarity intrinsic to a winter woodland that is obscured in the vibrant displays of other seasons. The structure of the trees and their arrangement become clear, and small constructions such as bird’s nests, witch’s brooms and wasp nests are revealed.

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Next time you walk through a winter woodland, take time to pause and examine the nearest rotting log, the branches above you, the leaf-litter at your feet, and you’ll be rewarded with a hidden beauty visible only to those of us who stop long enough to see it.


Jaunty scarlet elf cups stand out against a moss-covered dead log. Cups are around 4cm across with a short stem.

Scarlet elf cups
Scarlet elf cups/Getty

Brilliant green moss contrasts with the blackened hue of rotting wood. Created by rot fungus, this dark layer is catchily termed the ‘pseudosclerotial plate’.

Green moss on rotting wood
Green moss on rotting wood. /Getty

A response to damage, the burrs on this tree appear to form a face with an overhanging brow and pursed lips.

Burrs on an old tree
Burrs on an old tree. /Alamy

Discolouration caused by fungi creates artistic patterns running through wood, known as spalting, seen here in these chopped silver birch logs.

Spalting effect in silver birch logs showing zone lines.
Spalting effect in silver birch logs showing zone lines. /Alamy
 Frequently found in birch trees, witch’s broom is a deformity in which multiple shoots grow from a single branch, creating a bird’s nest structure.
Betula pubescens with Taphrina betulina witch's broom. Beacon Hill, Northumberland, UK./Credit: CC-SA 3.0
Betula pubescens with Taphrina betulina witch's broom. Beacon Hill, Northumberland, UK./Credit: Wikipedia, CC-SA 3.0
 An ancient pollarded beech tree in Savernake Forest. Practised in Europe since medieval times, pollarding involves pruning upper branches to limit a tree’s height and promote dense growth of foliage and branches.
An ancient pollarded beech tree in Savernake Forest. /Alamy
An ancient pollarded beech tree in Savernake Forest. /Alamy
 Moss tends to grow towards the south-west, in order to benefit from the most sunlight and rain, which can be useful information when navigating a woodland.
Moss on the bark of a tree in winter
Moss on the bark of a tree in winter. /Alamy
 Also known as ‘ice wool’ or ‘frost beard’, hair ice forms on dead wood, taking the shape of fine, silky hair.
Ice wool, or frost beard, on dead wood. /Getty
Ice wool, or frost beard, on dead wood. /Getty
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