With her blue-gray eyes, light reddish hair, and pale complexion that hints of pink, Mary Anne Borge is a true child of winter, her essential colors reflective of a December sky out in the woods.

Which is where we are this chilly morning, outfitted with water bottles, binoculars, backpacks, and cameras, exploring the 134-acre Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve just south of New Hope.

Borge is a volunteer naturalist here, one of a handful leading winter wildflower walks at preserves and arboretums in the region. But she's a lot like other plant people, too: Can't decide on a favorite flower or season.

"They're all my favorites," these folks say with amusing neutrality and frequency.

Winter has always had its fans. They go on about the garden's bones and architecture finally showing through, about the tamped-down tableau of red berries, gray bark, and brown seeds. Sure, sure, but winter is the perennial underdog in a competition forever dominated by fair-weather front-runners - spring, summer, even fall, increasingly touted as a time of beauty in the garden.

Still, winter is Borge's favorite favorite season. "It's just gorgeous," she says, "and once you learn to appreciate it, winter becomes short."

A Chicago native, Borge lives with her husband, Jeff Worthington, in Lambertville, N.J. Both are retired from software careers, and are fans of cross-country skiing, birding, and hiking. She leads wildflower walks in all seasons, sometimes so revved up her group barely makes it out of Bowman's parking lot into the woods.

Son of a gun. We spend 35 minutes inspecting plants and trees in the lot. There's that much to see:

The spidery yellow blooms and woody fruits of witch hazel. Scarecrows of purple giant hyssop and goldenrod. American holly, Appalachian bugbane, wild lacecap hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and a most wonderful tree, the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), also known as ironwood or musclewood for reasons that are immediately obvious.

Smooth, gray bark enfolds a sinewy, muscle-man trunk that begs to be touched. It's tree as sculpture.

Tall stalks of joe-pye weed line the walkway as we, finally, leave the parking area. But the going is slow; there are treasures at every turn.

We discover the odd red fruit of staghorn sumac, whose fuzzy branches resemble a stag's antlers; hazelnut catkins and ninebark seedheads; luminous sycamore bark and a bladdernut tree, which produces white flower bells in spring and airy, bladderlike seedpods now.

Borge says they were used as baby rattles by American Indians and early settlers. We shake them, charmed.

You might walk right by, but Borge points out wispy sourwood fruits silhouetted against the chilled sky, and moth cocoons attached to the branches of common spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with caterpillar-spun silk. If they don't get blasted off by weather, eaten by birds, or parasitized by wasps this winter, the pupae will emerge as grownups in spring.

With every step, in each season, there is much to learn, says Dan Efroymson, a manager with URL Pharma, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical company, who has participated in wildflower walks at Bowman's Hill, Tyler Arboretum in Media, and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum for about a decade.

"I'd like to be able to identify anything I see in any season, so I'm not necessarily going out for the aesthetics to see something in its most beautiful state," he says. "It's just as interesting to me in winter as it is in summer."

And, as anyone who loves the outdoors knows, the woods are ever-welcoming. "Even when it's cold," says Efroymson, who lives in Roxborough, "there's something about it that's comforting. It feels kind of like home."

Dick Cloud of Glen Riddle, owner of a chimney maintenance company, has been a volunteer naturalist at Tyler and Heinz for more than 15 years. He led the first wildflower walk Efroymson went on, the one that sparked what likely will be a lifelong interest.

Like Borge, Cloud's favorite favorite season is winter. He, too, loves its place in the seasonal continuum. "It's looking at what was and what will be," he says, citing as an example the life cycle of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Often considered a nuisance because of its name ("weed") and rambunctious habit, this native plant, and its variations, can be quite stunning all year long. And its leaves and flowers feed more than 450 kinds of insects, including butterflies.

The female monarch lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves, which the larvae and caterpillars feed on exclusively. You see, Cloud says, a single plant over time opens a window to - but can never totally explain - nature's complexities.

"You watch the milkweed flourish in summer," he begins, "then you sneak up and appreciate the smell that comes with those intriguing flowers. You look at its pollinating habits - it's pollinated by insect legs - and its pods, the way it hosts the monarch butterfly larvae, the nectar, the seeds that get to blowing around, the empty seed pods that remain well into the winter."

Dozens of heady flower clusters in summer produce barely four or five winter pods, but the milkweed's dried stalks continue to support life. Orioles like to hang their nests on them.

"People don't see these things. This time of year, they aren't paying attention and they're not interested in going out," says the self-taught Cloud, who feels happiest "when I get back from a walk and somebody says, 'I never noticed any of those things before.' "

So it is on our woodland trek with Borge. Things we may have blown by before come into focus, each with a purpose in the puzzle, every one a story.

"All are my favorites," Borge says, again.

Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/ gardening.

EndText

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.