Signs of Spring – Skunks in the Snow

Skunk Cabbages, Rocky River Reservation, Ohio
Skunk Cabbages, Rocky River Reservation, Cleveland, Ohio

It’s mid-February in northeast Ohio, and many of us are enjoying a thaw in the frigid temperatures we’ve endured for several months. Winter will surely return during the next few weeks, but signs of spring are everywhere around the Buckeye State.  One of the surest signals that the vernal season is almost here can be found in wet areas along stream and river banks, and around the edge of woodland ponds. Poking up through the snow in these swampy places are the yellow, green, and wine-red cowls of skunk cabbages, an early wildflower that appears in late winter when patches of snow may still carpet the ground.

Skunk Cabbages in Snow
Skunk Cabbages in Snow

The pointed hoods or spathes of the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) emerge from the ground in fall, but are rarely noticed until they melt through the snow in late winter. The greenish bracts near the spathe will develop into leaves that may grow to be two feet in length. When the spathe or leaves are crushed they release a rank odor that some people say resembles that of a skunk; to my nose the aroma is more like rotting meat or garlic.

Inside the spathe is a knobby, stalked flower head called a spadix, studded with yellowish male and female flowers. When the ambient temperature around the skunk cabbage reaches a few degrees above freezing, the spadix begins to generate heat, through a process called thermogenesis, until the temperature inside the spathe reaches about 72 degrees F. The warm temperatures attract honeybees and other flying insects, which enter the spathe, pollinate some of the flowers and absorb the heat before flying off to visit other plants.

Skunk Cabbage Leaves, Poland Municipal Forest, Ohio
Skunk Cabbage Leaves, Poland Municipal Forest, Ohio

If you would like to photograph skunk cabbages helping to melt the winter snows, visit virtually any of Ohio’s state or county parks or state nature preserves with swampy, woodland areas during the next few weeks. Some of my favorite Ohio places with large populations of skunk cabbages include Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Cleveland Metroparks, Fowler Woods and Cedar Bog State Nature Preserves, and Poland Municipal Forest in Mahoning County. Be sure to wear rubber boots or other waterproof footwear, and you may want to pack a plastic garbage bag to kneel on in the muddy terrain where skunk cabbages like to grow.

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