Below the snow: What plants can tell us when we can’t see the soil

Posted by Andrew Adams on December 16, 2022

Sitting there at your computer desk, easy chair or couch, dreaming of starting your own farm in the depths of winter?

Let me share some tips and tricks, which you can use when you find that dream property covered in snow and want to know what’s below.

Sometimes winter is the only time of the year when there is time to go exploring land. When you live in a region that has snow for six months or longer, you can’t let the snow keep you from walking over potential properties for your farming adventure less they get gobbled up before you sign a lease or purchase.

In a previous life, I worked as a forest ecologist mapping ecosystems and soils. I’ve walked across much of northern BC identifying plants, plant communities at risk and their soils. In my time doing this work it was obvious that the plants have so much to tell us if we are willing to listen.

Andrew snowshoeing on his property in 2012 during -40 weather

In nature, plants often exist in a narrow range of soil, water and climatic conditions that are conducive to their needs. When seen from above the snow pack, plants are willing to tell you just what exists below in terms of soil texture, nutrients and water cycle.

You were planning on going snowshoeing this winter anyway, right? You might as well learn a bit about prospective properties and get the jump on a lease for next season.

Common trees and shrubs in the central interior and northern regions of BC

And how they can help you uncover the mystery that may lay below the snow

Landooz (Carrier language) also known in English as Black Cottonwood Populus balsamifera ssp. Trichocarpa :

These trees are often found in summer with shiny, dark green leaves that are lance shaped. Trees even in winter will have very fragrant and sticky terminal buds. The bark is smooth, yellowish-grey on younger trees, but grows thick and deeply grooved with age. They favour floodplains and moist upland sites with lots of light. They do not grow well in the shade of other species.

Black cottonwood trees are going to tell you where there is water just below the surface and likely with lots of nutrients. Abundant cottonwoods in a field may tell you a tale of good soil but frequent flooding which can pose problems for cultivation. A linear feature of cottonwoods would indicate a stream below the surface which could be beneficial for irrigation or livestock.

Resinous buds of the black cottonwood tree in winter
bark of a mature black cottonwood tree

Hardhack (ssp. douglasii); Menzies’ spirea (ssp. menziesii); Pink spirea; rose spirea)

The aptly nicknamed Hardhack or Spirea can be difficult to bushwhack through.

Its leaves are alternate, deciduous, short-stalked, oblong to egg-shaped, 3-10 cm long, coarsely toothed mostly above the middle, dark green and smooth above, paler and woolly-hairy to smooth beneath.

In the winter it obviously will not have its leaves but the alternate bud scars and dried flowers that often stay attached all winter can help with its identification. It is also often in clumps or bunches in its growth habit which can grow close to one another.

When I come across spirea, two things come to mind: poor cold air drainage and fine textured soils. It would be a location that typically stays fairly cold overnight and may pose a higher frost risk. The soils are frequently moist, fine textured clay that doesn’t drain well. These are often areas you want to avoid bringing into cultivation and simply let them serve as great habitat to pollinators and birds.

Spirea in winter

‘ut’ankal chun (carrier language) also known in English as Red raspberry (rubus idaeus)

That sweet wild treat you find when walking on trails in late summer.

If you are unfamiliar with Red Raspberry, it is a medium shrub, 0.5-2 m tall, perennial with biennial stems (canes), almost unarmed to prickly and bristly, often glandular-hairy, sometimes smooth and glaucous beneath the prickles. Bark is yellow to cinnamon-brown, shredding similar to cultivated raspberry.

These plants are often found in mesic sites. A mesic site would be an area that is seasonally wet for short periods but still drains well. Raspberry is very intolerant of anaerobic conditions in the soil. In other words this plant is telling us it doesn’t like super wet bog- or swamp-like conditions.

Often, if I come across a nice patch of wild raspberry, I am thinking of a few things. The first thing that may come to mind is that this site was likely “disturbed” recently (disturbance can be fire, cultivation, road building or even a forest blowdown event). The second thing is that the soil in these areas are likely to be decently supplied with nutrients and third, it likely has loamy soil texture. If the land area is significantly sized enough with abundant raspberries which aren’t just a linear feature next to a stream, this would have a high likelihood of being decent soil and drainage for cultivation.

Wild Raspberry canes in winter

Reed Canary grass (phalaris arundinacea)

I once had a giant tank I used for brewing my own compost tea in a small nursery greenhouse. One day, I had pulled some Reed canary grass from near the greenhouse and put it in the tank to decompose and release some nitrogen into the water. What ended up happening was that it took root, and formed a floating mat in the tank. Those grass nodes had no problem growing in just water after being ripped from the ground minus its roots. So it likes water?

The stems can reach two metres (6.6 ft) in height. The panicles of Reed Canary grass are up to 30 centimetres long. The spikelets are light green, often streaked with darker green or purple (though it’s all brown in winter). This is a perennial grass which spreads underground by its thick rhizomes. Its best identifier in winter will be its flowers or spikelets.

Reed canary grass, if found in a field, is often an indicator of wet conditions occurring frequently. Occasionally it can be found poking above the snow in a pasture. This should tell the observer a couple things about the land. One is that the hay was not harvested that year. It may have not been harvested due to wet conditions causing the inability to get the tractor on the land. Or…. it simply just wasn’t in hay production. Two, it should allow one to know that the land is likely to be fairly saturated on a regular basis.

Mature Reed canary grass

Yuntumai’ (carrier language) also known in English as Velvet Leaf Blueberry (vaccinium myrtilloides)

If you see this specimen in winter you are likely not in deep snow as it usually is only around 40cm high. I am going to go out on a limb here (that’s a plant pun) and say that this is the most delicious blueberry species in British Columbia.

The plant is a rounded shape, with very dense, velvety hairs on the leaves and stems, especially when young.

Often Velvet Leaf Blueberry shrubs are an indicator of sandy soil that drains well. If the soil and climate on my farm was conducive to growing these plants, I would probably plant a few thousand to satisfy my appetite for their sweet blue clusters of joy that appear in summer.

Velvet leaf blueberry with fruit

There are many plants and trees that can help you identify your potential property to start your operations and I’ve listed a few. If you are interested in learning more on what plants can tell us and have or would like to have an understanding of the edatopic grid and biogeoclimatic zones, visit

When identifying plants in the wild, Andrew recommends using two different field guides for more descriptors on each plant. It is always good consult your local forest ecologist or agrologist when unsure of the plants you are seeing.


Andrew Adams is a Land Matcher for the Central-North region of B.C. with the B.C. Land Matching Program, which provides personalized land matching and business support services to farmers looking for land to start or expand their farm, and landholders interested in finding someone to farm their land. Land Matchers also support farmers and landholders who are already matched to develop lease agreements.

Need help with getting a lease contract in place after you find your dream spot?

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The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Bullitt Foundation, and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.

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