Monday, March 1, 2010

Spring thrusts from the quagmire

Where I live, in Columbus, Ohio, it's been one tough long winter. A blanket of snow has hidden the earth's crust all winter it seems. February's snowfall was a record, and there's still a foot or so of the white stuff cloaking everything on this first day of March.

I like snow and winter, but am totally ready for the end. Needing a major botanical fix - and desperately seeking some sign of winter's end! - off I went to a local spring today at lunchtime. Bingo! Our first true wildflower of spring was in flawless condition in all of its fleshy elegance.

The liver-spotted horns of Skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, thrust from the mire of a central Ohio spring. It's right on schedule, a blanket of snow not being any impediment to its growth.

This plant is THE true harbinger of spring, although another wildflower in the parsley family (Apiaceae) carries that common name. The skunks at this locale were all in fine form, and had probably started blooming a week or two back.

The bizarre fleshy hood of a Skunk-cabbage is called a spathe, and it conceals an odd clublike structure known as a spadix, visible in this shot. Those are the tiny yellowish flowers peppered over the spadix, each with a full complement of pollen. Early-emerging insects such as stoneflies pollinate skunks. The vining plant with opposite leaves is Moneywort, Lysimachia nummularia, which is an abundant Eurasian species of damp areas whose leaves are semi-evergreen.

Even where snow still covered the springy saturated soil, the skunks still pushed forth. This photo clearly shows an odd talent exhibited by Skunk-cabbage, but few other plants. Through a process of cellular respiration, this species produces heat: thermogenesis. Actively growing skunks may be many degrees warmer than surrounding soil, thus warming their immediate environment and enabling the plant to push through frozen snow crusts like a hot knife through butter.

Take heart, when the Skunk-cabbage are in bloom, we are in winter's final death throes, and the rush of spring and all its life is hot on the skunk's heels.


Jason Kessler said...

No "skunks" visible yet here in New England, but that perception may be due to the impenetrability of the drifts between the swamp's edge and the toasty hearth.

Weedpicker Cheryl said...

Checked Ashland's Audubon Wetlands this a.m. with no such luck. Columbus must be ahead of us again!


Ian Adams said...


There are plenty of Skunk Cabbages around here in northeast Ohio, where
we've received record snowfalls this winter.

You failed to mention in your blog article how the "skunk" cabbage gets its name.

Like you, I'm anxious for spring to arrive.

Ian Adams

P.S. Nice skunk cabbage photos!

Cathy said...


Coming to a neighborhood near me, but not as soon as yours.

Still - a lovely read with a real message of hope.

Chris and Ricky said...

Just saw some skunk cabbage at Kiwanis yesterday - we'd never seen it before and recognized it from this post! So thanks!

Jason Kessler said...

Lo and behold, the thawing snows revealed for the first time today The Skunk Cabbages of New England (the name of my next band).

If the convocations of babbling Red-winged Blackbirds weren't enough to announce Spring, them cabbages done the trick.

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