Exploring your world: how plants cope with cold

Discover how Michigan plants cope with the months of cold winter temperatures.

Tree branches covered in snow.
Image by 💙♡🌼♡💙 Julita 💙♡🌼♡💙 from Pixabay.

The Michigan State University Extension science team’s goal is to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy across Michigan. One way we increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world.      

Winter is a fantastic time for STEM exploration. There is much to learn about the season, such as what snow iswhat a snowflake is, or how snow impacts soundAnimal adaptations  for coping with cold is another fascinating topic that we explored. This article will explore the survival adaptations plants have that help them make it through the months of cold temperatures that make up a Michigan winter.

To help youth explore how Michigan plants have adapted to survive winter, begin by brainstorming what makes winter in Michigan different from the other seasons. Some things youth may say are cold temperatures, snow, frozen water, less food available in the woods, or any number of other answers. Explore with youth what changes people make to survive winter in Michigan. Answers may include wearing warmer coats, heating homes, using snow tires, taking part in more indoor activities or temporarily relocating to warmer states. What about plants? How do they adapt to winter? Do they change their coats? Do they move where its warmer? Do they store food?

Plants, unlike animals, are rooted to their place and unable to move indoors or to a warmer location. Neither can they bundle up in warmer clothing. So how do they survive? We know they must since we don’t have to replant all the forests and meadows each spring.

The major weather change in Michigan that impacts plants is cold, freezing temperatures. This impacts all living creatures because all living things contain a lot of water. Even in winter, plants still need water. Freezing temperatures can turn water into ice, making it unusable by plants. It can even damage them as water that freezes changes characteristics, becoming solid and developing sharp edges that can injure or destroy plant cells.

Colder temperatures also mean that air masses contain less water. This reduces water vapor, which is another important water source for plants. The wind blows in all seasons, but the dryer air masses of winter mean less water is available while the wind continue to dry surfaces, including plant surfaces.

So how do plants survive winter? As the days shorten and temperatures change, hormones are triggered in plants that signal changes. A species of plant may do one or a combination of the following changes as they prepare for winter.

  • Create anti-freeze. Some plants increase the amount of sugar, salt or other compounds mixed in the water of their cells. This lowers the freezing point, requiring much colder than normal temperatures to cause their cells to freeze.
  • Move water deeper. Some plant move water/sugar/sap into the roots and/or into the spaces between cells, where it is less likely to freeze or cause damage if it does freeze.
  • Enter dormancy. Some plants reduce or nearly stop growing. This helps plants conserve energy and food, as well as reduces the amount of water they need.
  • Drop their leaves. By dropping their leaves, plants reduce the surface area that is exposed to the cold, drying air, saving water in the plant. In addition, dropped leaves break down and return nutrients to the soil. When the leaves return in the summer, the increased surface area helps move water up from the roots into the leaves.

When discussing this concept with youth, remind them that plants are an important part of our ecosystems. Ask youth to share their thoughts on how plants adapt to winter. Encourage youth to take a winter walk and observe the plants around them or take some time to go skiing, sledding, ice skating or snowshoeing.

STEM engages youth in identifying problems, designing solutions as they explore and understand their world - the backyard, a pond, a frozen hill, outer space, or a pet dog. Science is not about being right or wrong, but rather working through questions with curiosity to discover answers. Identifying problems and designing solutions develops an interest for lifelong learning. A scientist or engineer is an explorer, always on the hunt for the why and how. You can help youth become lifelong learners as they explore their world by engaging them to ask questions and discover answers.

For more ways to encourage youth to become lifelong learners exploring their world, visit the MSU Extension 4-H Teaching Science When You Don’t Know Diddly-squat seriesa series of free activities designed to encourage the joy of discovery by asking questions and discovering answers.

Did you find this article useful?

Other Articles in this Series