Neither a Skunk Nor a Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

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.”

Western skunk cabbage

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.

Eastern skunk cabbage

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.

 

 

At Great Falls National Park

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.

In the Realm of Druids and Faeries

steps1This is the cool, wet time of year when moss is at its best. Its emerald plumpness proclaims, “Look at me. My hyper green greenness demands that you see me.”

Against the grayest of gray days and the most muted tones of fallen logs and decaying leaves, moss paints the landscape with exuberant signs of life.

All green was vanished save of pine and yew, That still displayed their melancholy hue; Save the green holly with its berries red, And the green moss that o’er the gravel spread.

―George Crabbe

I like moss. Moss in my yard, moss on trees, moss on concrete, moss on brick. It drapes the concrete under my fencing. I invite it to spread across my yard, replacing the useless grass at every inch. I’ve gotten rid of most of my front lawn, instead having vegetable plots, a pollinator garden and drought-tolerant shrubs and natives. My yard is a wildlife sanctuary.

There is some moss on the ground, but I’d like more. It would save me from mowing or using mulch around my plantings.

steps2
Did ancient Romans climb these steps? (Camp Long)

Often overlooked or undervalued by the casual observer, mosses do serve important functions in nature. Classified as bryophytes, mosses help stabilize the soil, reduce evaporation of water and even provide food for some herbivores.

They take nutrients from the atmosphere and therefore can be indicators of air pollution.

One gram of moss from the forest floor, a piece about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, author, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Bridge support, Camp Long
Bridge support, Camp Long

But most of all, moss is nature’s way of reminding us that nature wins in the end. It conquers manmade surfaces. I like the way it decorates steps and benches and bridge supports. It makes them look like remnants of ancient civilizations and transforms my walks into brief visits to the past.

Bench in Camp Long
Bench, Camp Long

It is said that faeries sleep on beds of moss. I’ve never seen one, but I keep looking.

Hardware store shelves bulge with “Moss be Gone” and “Moss Out.” I say, keep your money and let the moss run wild!

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow