Signs of Spring: Skunk Cabbage
Even when snow still covers the ground, spring has ways of making herself known. The red-breasted robins appear and the red-winged blackbirds—both flashing scarlet colors that evoke the quickening of our blood as the season begins to change. Up through the frozen crust emerges the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), among the first native perennials to brave the cold. Its mottled wine-colored flower appears first, bearing sex organs capable of generating their own heat from starch stored in the roots. As the air temperature falls, the plant responds by increasing its heat production. This self-generated warmth protects the flowers from freezing; releases the plant’s strong fetid scent, which promotes early pollination by pollen-gathering bees and carrion-eating insects; and offers refuge to early-season insects.
Yellow-green leaves eventually follow, growing directly from the top of the root in tightly rolled cones. There is no stalk. The leaves unfurl and grow up to two feet high and broad. Skunk cabbage is often found in large patches in marshes, wetlands and on stream and river banks, growing alongside ferns and false hellebore, a toxic plant to which it bears a marked resemblance.
Skunk cabbage is a popular early-spring food source for bear and deer. Both species chomp on it enthusiastically. The plant is inedible for humans as it contains calcium oxalate, whose crystalline shards cause intense burning and irritation. It can be boiled in multiple changes of water with baking soda or thoroughly dehydrated to make it edible, but is generally considered a resource of last resort. Not so the nettle, which should be making an appearance soon...