How do Plants Survive the Winter?

All forms of life do something in order to survive winter in the Rocky Mountains – many animals choose to migrate, hibernate, or adapt.  Trees can’t migrate, so they drop all their leaves and go dormant, which is similar to hibernating.

But, what about all the other plants that are in the landscape – mainly what happens to those beautiful meadows of wildflowers?  Come winter time, those meadows are covered in snow and I most definitely do not see any wildflowers.  Even when I am struggling through the snow with my short legs and digging for mice, I don’t see any wildflowers.

What happens to those wildflowers?  Their survival strategy depends on what kind of plant they are – an annual or perennial.

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Blue Flax – an annual wildflower.


These are plants that only live for one growing season.  In the spring time they grow quickly from a seed into a new plant.  Their entire goal for their short life (the spring to fall) is to reproduce or make new seeds.  So, they grow fast and make flowers.  If they are lucky they make new seeds, which they then let go of to fall onto the ground.  After that their leaves wither, and they die off.  The only part of them that lives during the winter is their seeds under the snow, which will hopefully grow into new plants in the springtime.  Examples include Black Eyed Susan, and Blue Flax.

Annuals survive winter as seeds, which protect them from the cold and then are able to grow into a new plant in the spring.

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Lupine – a perennial wildflower.


Wildflowers and other plants that live year after year are called perennials.  Most of the wildflowers you find in a meadow up in the Rocky Mountains are perennials.  Perennials keep their roots and part of their stems all year long.  They too are trying to produce seeds in order to reproduce.  But, unlike annuals they will not die after making seeds.

Instead in the fall they begin to go dormant (just like trees that lose their leaves).  This means they stop putting their energy into their leaves and stems and instead keep in in their roots.  The stems are dead, but remain standing during the winter until they get crushed by snow or something else happens to them.  In the spring they grow new stems and flowers. Examples include Lupine, Coneflowers (Echinacea), and Asters.

Perennials survive winter in two ways – either as seeds that will grow into new plants in the spring, or by going dormant and then growing new leaves and stems in the spring.