Just feet from our front door is a small woods that drops off gently to a marshy area that is still partially blanketed in snow. Yesterday, I decided to make my way down the incline to the meandering stream in the midst of the woodland to search for the first or one of the first native plants to flower in the spring.
The ground was spongy and muddy where there was no snow cover, and slippery where the snow patches were turning icy before melting altogether. This is just a small spit of woods but once inside, the tree canopy enveloped me. The earthy smells, the birds twittering, the squirrels moving along the tall hemlocks and pines, intensely green moss covering every fallen branch and tree stump, made this tiny wooded area a magical spot away from civilization. I felt I had just entered the magical portal linking me to a miniature Narnia.
Growing out of the snow at the edge of the stream, I spotted what I’d come to find, Symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage. The first part of the plant is the spathe, a purplish mottled pod that is able to generate heat and melt a hole in snow. None I saw had opened yet but when they do, they will expose the spadix, the flower cluster inside that will attract insects. The green bud next to the spathe will become the massive leaves of the plant. When the days become warmer, these leaves will unfurl to a very large size… up to 2-ft. in length and a foot wide.
Not related to a true cabbage, the name of the plant, skunk cabbage, comes from the smell of the plant, a fetid odor that attracts early flies to visit and pollinate the plants. The raw leaves are eaten by insects but are toxic to most animals… including the human animal.
Some may think these plants ordinary or common, but I am fascinated by these natives, a true harbinger of spring, that can actually melt snow. Knowing how to do that this winter would have come in handy in New Hampshire!