First Flower of the Spring Season

The day before Spring announced itself on our calendars I spied the first flower of the season. After the winter we just had — it was refreshing to see new life!

The 3-inch snowfall that came on the first day of Spring was melted by the next day, except for a few snow banks and places in the shade. The melting snow contributed to the mountain streams already flowing downhill. Low lying areas are full of this really cold water.

Driving on a back road I could slow down enough to see the skunk cabbage hoods sticking out of the mud a couple of inches.

Skunk Cabbage in a Mountain Stream
Skunk Cabbage in a Mountain Stream

Skunk cabbage seems to like water so much that it has no problem coming up right in the mountain stream. Just don’t look for it in dry areas. Without a large amount of water to draw upon, the huge leaves of skunk cabbage would have difficulty attaining their full size.

The hood that surrounds the flowers are variously mottled with yellow and maroon. Some hoods are maroon with yellow spots while others are mostly yellow with maroon spots.

Maroon-spotted Yellow Hoods of Skunk Cabbage
Maroon-spotted Yellow Hoods of Skunk Cabbage

For another few weeks the skunk cabbage will be growing in the marshy and wet areas. At first you’ll be able to see the hoods surrounding the actual flowers. On closer inspection the flowers can be observed inside the hood. Later on the leaves will be much more visible. Right now, the leaves are rolled up and starting to point out of the ground next to the flower.

Skunk Cabbage Flowers Hide in the Woodlands

Skunk Cabbage flowers are not your typical Spring blossoms. Anyone who wasn’t educated about the structure of this strange plant would be hard pressed to recognize the flowers as such, or to find them in the first place. The flowers grow in colonial fashion on a sphere inside a protective hood. One can see these protective structures on a walk through the woods or wetlands, but the flowers are so small that they’re not easily seen unless you get down on their level.

The protective hoods are well camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings. The colorful skunk cabbage hoods are yellow to light green and streaked with slashes and spots of maroon and brown. Most hoods are variegated while a few are mostly one color. It’s surprising how well these bright colors blend into the leaves on the forest floor. Unless you know what you’re looking for they can easily be missed.

Maroon-streaked yellow hood of skunk cabbage.
Maroon-streaked yellow hood of skunk cabbage.
Yellow hood of skunk cabbage with maroon blotches.
Yellow hood of skunk cabbage with maroon blotches.
Yellow-green and maroon hood of skunk cabbage.
Yellow-green and maroon hood of skunk cabbage.
Purple or maroon hoods of skunk cabbage.
Purple or maroon hoods of skunk cabbage.
Camouflaged hoods of skunk cabbage at the creek.
Camouflaged hoods of five skunk cabbage plants at the creek.

Flowers may be present for up to a few weeks before the leaves emerge from the wet ground like “rolled-up cigars”. As the leaves grow in size quickly they begin to uncurl and become these mammoth cabbage-like leaves, hence the name “skunk cabbage”.

Flowers inside the hood.
Flowers inside the hood.
Purple sphere with flowers inside hood.
Purple sphere with flowers inside hood.
Yellow sphere with flowers inside hood.
Yellow sphere with flowers inside hood.

As I was stooping down to take these pictures it did smell like a skunk had recently passed that way. Of course it was the scent of the flowers that I was detecting. Their skunky smell beckons the flies that pollinate them. A few were buzzing around the area when I stopped by.

If you haven’t seen skunk cabbage before, now is a good time to look for it. The flowers are all but gone and dwarfed by the enormous leaves, but that makes it easier to spot these plants from afar.

Skunk cabbage leaves appearing at the creek.
Skunk cabbage leaves appearing at the creek.
The leaves and colorful hood of skunk cabbage.
The leaves and colorful hood of skunk cabbage.

Look for skunk cabbage near water sources and in bottom lands. Skunk cabbage leaves grow out while the deciduous trees are still bare. The hooded flowers hide among leaves really well and they won’t be seen from a distance, so it’s much easier to find a patch of skunk cabbage once the leaves have appeared. The plants photographed here were growing next to or in a small stream or creek in the mountains in Central Pennsylvania.

After you’ve found a colony of these perennial plants, make a mental note of the location so you’ll be able to return there next year in early Spring to see the flowers.

Skunk Cabbage at the Spring-Fed Stream

The trees on our ridge-top are just starting to make their leaves so the hillsides still look bare. The spring-fed streams look more alive with the skunk cabbage developing their huge green leaves.

The skunk cabbage has already bloomed for the year and is one of the only noticeable green things out here. No doubt this creek was much higher after the deluge of rain the other day.

A sunfish scooted away as we approached the edge of a pool in this little stream.

Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge.
Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
A downstream look at the babbling brook.
A downstream look at the babbling brook. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar. Photo taken 21 April 2011.

In this lowland area there were ferns beginning to roll out their fronds and other small plants growing green. Brambles and garlic mustard are some of the first plants to really get growing at this time of year.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is surprisingly edible. Crushing a leaf releases a skunky odor, so you wouldn’t think to eat this stuff. Eating a raw leaf will cause intense burning in the mouth because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Drying the leaves or rootstock thoroughly will remove this property. Dried leaves can be reconstituted for use in soups or stews or used as a cooked green. According to¬†Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide, the rootstock can be dried and pounded to make a flour that is somewhat cocoa-like.

Huge Skunk Cabbage Leaves Roll Out at the Creek

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is quite noticeable this time of year as its enormous leaves dominate the wetlands. Go driving around the countryside and where there are creeks, backwaters, or the edges of rivers in woodlands look for the very large, bright green leaves of this perennial plant.

Patch of skunk cabbage near a drainage creek at Little Buffalo State Park.
Patch of skunk cabbage near a drainage creek at Little Buffalo State Park.

Skunk cabbage occurs in the wetland areas near the Mill Race Trail where you can see other spring ephemeral flowers at Little Buffalo State Park, Perry County, Pennsylvania. (Photo taken 3apr2010.)

Close-up image of skunk cabbage plants in a wetland area.
Close-up image of skunk cabbage plants in a wetland area.

No flowers are visible in this image of skunk cabbage plants growing at the creek’s edge. (Photo taken 3apr2010.)

The flower of skunk cabbage is a strange one. It is the earliest flowering plant of the season by coming up as early as February. Actually, several very small flowers are grouped together in a special structure. Pollinated by flies, these posies stink like rotting flesh some say, but I don’t have any experience to make that comparison. Let’s just say, skunk cabbage has an appropriate name!

Skunk cabbage flowers appear to be miniature yellow fringes dotted on a ball which is housed safely inside a leathery sheath. The sheath is referred to as the spathe and the ball of flowers inside the spathe is called the spadix.

As the flowers become pollinated and the growth activity of the plant continues, the temperature inside the spathe becomes warmer than the ambient temperature. It gets so warm in fact that skunk cabbage flowers have been observed to melt snow from around the plant.

Skunk cabbage leaves and flower next to a creek.
Skunk cabbage leaves and flower next to a creek.

The spathe in the image above – at the lower right of the plant – shows the typical mottled colors of maroon, brown, yellow and light green. The spadix cannot be seen through the opening of the spathe in the image above, but the tiny flowers are visible (in person) if you inspect inside the spathe.

Peterson’s Wildflower Guide lists skunk cabbage under both green and miscellaneous brown flowers. (Remaining photos taken 5apr2010 at Edgar’s Creek.)

Flowers are barely noticeable at the base of the skunk cabbage leaves.
Flowers are barely noticeable at the base of the skunk cabbage leaves.

The skunk cabbage plants in this creek-side group are large enough or old enough to have flowered. Note that the yellow-circled areas mark the flowers at the base of the leaves.

Leaves of skunk cabbage rise out of the ground all rolled together and rise up vertically as they emerge from the ground.

Skunk cabbage leaves emerge rolled up and unfurl into huge oval shapes.
Skunk cabbage leaves emerge rolled up and unfurl into huge oval shapes.

As the leaves get bigger and bigger they open up more and more. Skunk cabbage leaves are enormous as they can grow 1 – 3 feet long and half as wide.

Crushing a leaf releases the same rotten odor that the flower gives off. Nobody wants to eat this cabbage! However, Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide tells us that the thoroughly dried leaves collected in very early spring can be used as a cooked green or reconstituted in soup. CAUTION – If the leaves are not dried well, calcium oxalate crystals – which are removed only by drying completely – will burn and cause inflammation. In fall the roots can be collected and dried completely to make a flour.

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Spring Ephemeral Flowers at Little Buffalo State Park Newport PA

Take Route 34 exit off Route 322, go south on Route 34 through Newport, PA and just after a sharp bend in the road to the right (near the feed mill), turn right onto Little Buffalo Road. Continue for a mile or so and turn left onto State Park Road. Pass in front of the Blue Ball Tavern Museum and cross the one lane bridge. Turn right onto the first lane and proceed to the parking area on the left.

Map of the day use area in Little Buffalo State Park
Map of the Day Use Area in Little Buffalo State Park

The red path shows how to get to the Day Use Area and where to park. The yellow circle marks the best place to find Spring wild flowers in Little Buffalo State Park.

The Day Use Area is set up for picnics with plenty of picnic tables and pavilions, grills, a playground, and easy access to trails and scenic overlooks.

Walk toward the creek and through the covered bridge. Take the Mill Race Trail if you want to see the Spring wildflowers. It’s an easy trail, only one-half mile long, and it is the best place to see the Spring Ephemeral flowers at Little Buffalo State Park. You’ll see some wildflowers on the hillsides and other flowers in the lowlands near the creek. Shoaff’s Mill is an attraction in itself – the water wheel is supposedly one of the biggest in existence!

Spring Ephemeral flowers blooming on 3 April 2010 –

  • skunk cabbage
  • round-lobe hepatica
  • spring beauty
  • bloodroot

Also saw the sword-like leaves of the trout lily, but its yellow flowers were not visible yet.

Spicebush trees or shrubs were blooming along the far end of Mill Race Trail near the creek. Bright yellow clusters of flowers bloom all along the length of the branches before any leaves appear.

If you’d like a more challenging hike, stop by the visitor’s center and pick up a map of the park. Try the Volksmarch 10K loop, the Buffalo Ridge Trail, or the Fisherman’s Trail.

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