Harbinger of Spring
This oddly named and odd-looking plant is one of the earliest to emerge in late winter/spring. It grows in wetlands, near streams and in wet areas in woods.
For some people, it’s a welcome sign of spring.
Henry David Thoreau saluted skunk cabbage for lifting our spirits:
“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”
But Joseph Wood Krutch saw it another way:
“There are some optimists who search eagerly for the skunk cabbage which in February sometimes pushes itself up through the ice, and who call it a sign of spring. I wish that I could feel that way about it, but I do not. The truth of the matter, to me, is simply that skunk cabbage blooms in the winter time.”
Here’s a quirky fact about skunk cabbage: it has its own internal heater, which helps it melt the snow away so it can emerge. I was once told by a teacher that if you put a thermometer inside one, you can see how warm it is. I’ve never tried this, but I have always wanted to.
The “flowers” emerge before the leaves. If you miss the flower, you might know skunk cabbage by its large green leaves. The other quirky thing about the plant is, its “foul smelling” leaves. Again, I have never smelled it, but it is said that if you crush the leaves, you will!
There are two types of skunk cabbage: the western (Lysichiton americanus), with its yellow flower, and the eastern (Symplocarpus foetidus), with a purple one.
When I lived on the east coast, I used to like to visit Great Falls National Park in Virginia, where a trail led to a low spot with a wetland full of skunk cabbage.
There was something reassuring about seeing it emerge every year, and I liked the way the purple flowers looked like alien pods. I liked to photograph the bright green leaves against the blue-black water.