- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Thickets are a dense, human-made community of young deciduous trees, shrubbery and vines, and tall weeds and grasses growing where they took root in soil that was disturbed, then abandoned.
Thickets in southeastern Pennsylvania form mostly in hedgerows between fields, in deserted fields and meadows, and along rural roadsides and railroad tracks, places that are seldom, if ever, manicured.
Seeds of these wild plants blew in on the wind, sprouted from bird droppings, or were buried as nuts and seeds by gray squirrels and blue jays. As that vegetation grows, it is the first to heal nature’s wounds after the soil was laid bare.
This first vegetation colonizes barren soil in this area. It provides ground cover against soil erosion, food and shelter for a variety of wildlife, and a variety of beauty in nature.
Thickets are pretty habitats that are interesting to visit at all times of the year. All have wildlife throughout the year, including field and deer mice; gray squirrels; cottontail rabbits; skunks; opossums; red foxes; red-tailed hawks; screech owls; a variety of small, wintering birds; and other kinds of farmland creatures.
And, as we enter wintry weather in southeastern Pennsylvania, local thickets are still interesting to visit because of their plants’ beauties and handsome, intriguing wildlife.
The bare, delicate twigs of trees and bushes are strikingly silhouetted black before sunrises and sunsets. That woody vegetation and the glowing sky enhance each other’s dramatic, winter-only beauties.
The lovely forms of dried seed heads — including those of spindly foxtail grass, fluffy goldenrods, upright teasels, and birds’-nest-shaped Queen-Anne’s-lace — and the open, chunky seedpods of common milkweed lend more beauties to thickets.
And it’s the seeds of these plants that feed mice and a variety of seed-eating wintering birds, including northern cardinals, song sparrows, American goldfinches, house finches, white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and other species that add their own wonderful beauties to winter thickets.
Red berries on Tatarian honeysuckle and multiflora rose bushes and orange ones on bittersweet vines add more beauty to local thickets in winter.
And those same berries are food for flocks of starlings, cedar waxwings, American robins, eastern bluebirds, and other kinds of berry-eating birds through winter. Those birds, too, add their beauties to that of winter thickets.
This winter, visit a farmland thicket, where there once was only uninteresting bare ground. The beauties and intrigues of those thickets stem from their adaptable pioneer plant life and the adaptable wildlife that vegetation supports in what, otherwise, was bare ground.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.