Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Skunk cabbage is true harbinger of spring


Soon, the first of our wild flowers will be in bloom, or blossoming, if you prefer. It is the skunk or swamp cabbage that is the true harbinger of what is to come.

We often wrongly applaud the hepatica, or interlopers from another continent like the coltsfoot, for being the first common wild flower, or dandelions and a variety of cultivated flowers emerging from bulbs we planted one autumn day, when in fact they are late as " harbingers of spring" compared to the skunk cabbage.

By way of explaining my interest in the following description, I have long been charmed by the writing style used by early authors, especially nature writers. Where would we find someone publishing a flower guide today with such poetic license as this excerpt from an account of the skunk cabbage in "Nature's Garden" by Neltje Blanchan, published in 1917?

"This despised relative of the stately calla lily proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter, being the first bold adventurer above ground. When the lovely hepatica, the first flower worthy the name to appear, is still wrapped in her fuzzy furs, the skunk cabbage's dark, incurved horn shelters within its hollow, tiny, malodorous florets. Why is the entire plant so foetid that one flees the neighborhood, pervaded as it is with an odor that combines a suspicion of skunk, putrid meat, and garlic? After investigating the Carrion-flower and the Purple Trillium, among others, we learned that certain flies delight in foul odors loathsome to higher organisms; that plants dependent on these pollen carriers woo them from long distances with a stench, and in addition sometimes try to charm them with color resembling the sort of meat it is their special mission, with the help of beetles and other scavengers of Nature, to remove from the face of the earth."

I would rather dub this flower as the first of winter, as it blossoms well before spring, in fact, almost too early to be even a harbinger of spring.

Noted literary naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) wrote it "may be found with its round green spear-point an inch or two above the mould in December. It is ready to welcome and make the most of the first fitful March warmth."

How does it do this? Briefly, the explanation includes "thermogenesis," a process by which the plant can heat its spadix (spherical head of flowers) up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit within the spathe (the hood-like wrap around leaf); it is almost like being in a heated greenhouse and is warm enough to melt the surrounding snow.

Look for skunk cabbage in a wooded wetland, what we call a swamp, or along brooks and other wet places in shady spots. Get close enough as the season progresses and there is no doubt as to which plant is the skunk cabbage, the four-to-six-inch-high, spiral hood-like leaves that enclose the flowers show first. Some of these twisted leaves are a deep wine-red color. Others have this background color mottled with areas of yellow green or yellow.

By May, the surrounding leaves are grown and add a solid rich green to the wet earth. Of course, when the ground or water is frozen, use care approaching. We wouldn't want you to break through thin ice or become stuck in thawing muck.

On a different note — it has become increasingly difficult to delegate the robin or bluebird as the feathered harbingers of spring, as both thrushes have enough presence in our area through the winter to now be thought of as year-round birds. Perhaps the red-winged blackbird should be the new feathered harbinger. Over the past few winters, I have received multiple comments that go something like this, "I just saw a robin (or bluebird). does this mean spring is coming?" My answer is sometimes, yes, spring has been coming since the first day of last summer."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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