How Plants Prepare for Winter Photosynthesis

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Plants in Winter

  • When we think of leaves in winter, we usually imagine them as dead or dying, having faded to fire colors during the autumn and fallen to the ground by the time winter has come. This effect is caused by the fading of green chlorophyll in the leaves, the compound vital to photosynthesis. As the days get shorter and colder, plants automatically cut off connections to their leaves and stop performing photosynthesis in order to save energy--for most of them, the work they would need to do in order to create energy from photosynthesis would be greater than the energy provided from the activity.

    However, there are many plants that keep their leaves and produce photosynthesis year-around, including needle trees such as the pine and even some broadleaf trees, like the holly. These plants keep the chlorophyll in their leaves and use the smaller amounts of energy it produces during the winter, which come in useful because of the protections winter-photosynthesizing plants have.

Winter Photosynthesis

  • First, like other plants facing winter, plants that perform winter photosynthesis spend time during the spring and summer storing energy. Some plants even have bulbs or tubers that hold the energy in special collections of starch cells for them. In the cold months, plants can convert these starch cells back to simple sugars that can be used to produce energy for the plant's system, or to provide energy for new growth in the springtime. Plants that grow throughout the winter also tend to store energy to help them get by in the cold months.

    The reason even photosynthesizing plants need so much extra energy in the winter is because of the temperatures. While in many places cloud cover can limit access to sunlight, the real danger lies in the lower air temperatures, which lower temperatures inside the plants itself. The cold causes all the process of photosynthesis to move more slowly, making the chemical reactions sluggish and transfer of nutrients a much longer process. This is due to the absence of heat on a molecular and atomic level, making it more difficult for molecules to move about and exchange parts in chemical reactions.

Winter Leaves

  • If the temperatures become too low, leaves can freeze and die completely. To protect themselves from this, winter-photosynthesizing plants produce very hardy leaves that withstand even freezing temperatures. Needles are small so that snow falls off of them easily and hard so they can withstand both the harsher weather conditions and the foraging of hungry animals during the winter time. Broadleaf plants that survive in winter have very tough, waxy leaves that also prove to be an unpleasant meal for animals and keep the chlorophyll pigments safely tucked away under a natural shield that still lets sunlight pierce through to the cells.

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