Three Spring Beauties

Apr 10, 2018

In this episode of Field Notes, Susan Knight gives us three reasons to look forward to spring.

I am a huge fan of winter.  But once the snow is clearly on its way out, who doesn’t start thinking about spring?  And what says spring better than … skunk cabbage?

Actually, there are three plants that come to mind when I think of early spring. Unlike those poor birders who have to wake up at the crack of dawn and contend with hordes of warblers descending on them within a two-week period, botanists can sleep in and visit plants that cordially wait their turn and hang around all day. I know better than to give plants human attributes, but the group I’m thinking of does suggest certain personalities, of say, a trio of sisters emerging like debutantes at their coming-out ball.

The first of the sisters to arrive in spring is skunk cabbage. This is the ugly sister, making up for her unattractiveness with some remarkable talents.  Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus is found in wet woods and along streams throughout northeastern North America, from eastern Canada through Minnesota and south along the spine of the Appalachians. It has two unusual characteristics. First, as its name suggests, it stinks.  When bruised or broken, all parts of the plant give off a skunky smell. Second, the plant generates its own heat, generating temperatures 30 to 60°F higher than the surrounding air temperatures. It will melt the surrounding snow as its flower emerges from the ground. These two features are interconnected; the heat not only helps melt the snow to allow the flower to emerge but also probably helps waft the skunky smell through the air, attracting pollinating flies and bees. To go along with its fetid smell, it has a mottled purple and brown hood-like flower, maybe looking and smelling somewhat like a dead carcass to attract the sorts of insects entranced by that kind of thing.

Another early spring plant that is as lovely as the skunk cabbage is stinky and ugly, is the marsh marigold or Caltha paulstris. Marsh marigold is the vain, narcissistic sister of this spring-time trio. Interestingly, the marsh marigold is also found in the same sort of very wet pond and stream margins. Despite its name, marsh marigold is not a marigold at all but rather is a kind of buttercup with spectacularly showy large, yellow flowers. You can often spot it lining soggy road ditches, delighting drivers along what might otherwise be a dreary route in early spring. Marsh marigold has beautiful, glossy, deep green kidney-shaped leaves. But there’s a sinister side to this showy sister – all parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten raw. I have heard that the leaves can be eaten if you are willing to pass them through several baths of boiling water, but I wonder why anyone would take the risk.

But my favorite early spring plant of the trio is trailing arbutus or Epigaea repens. Trailing arbutus is the demure Cinderella of the group, inconspicuous in dry sandy woods.  The genus, Epigaea, means “on the earth”, and the species name, ‘repens’ means creeping, an apt name for a plant creeping along the ground. It is probably the first terrestrial flower to blossom around here, but the plant barely rises above soil level and you might have to clear away some dead oak leaves or other plant detritus to see it. This plant is not super common but is found through much of Wisconsin, and more broadly over the eastern half of North America. It has oval, leathery leaves about 2 inches long and an inch wide. The leaves are evergreen so, you can find them any time of year, but the flowers are short-lived. The flowers are pale pink fading to white and look like tiny hairy trumpets with petals flaring into five flat lobes. But it is the heavenly scent of these discreet, humble little flowers that reward anyone game enough to get down on their hands and knees and take a deep sniff. It is the state flower of Massachusetts, where it is more commonly known as the mayflower, and where it is singled out for special protection. I am rather embarrassed to remember, as a kid growing up in Massachusetts, we would have an annual spring pilgrimage to pick ‘mayflowers’.  As I as I grew older and learned some botany, I realized we hadn’t been picking some common wildflower, but had actually been picking the rarer, wonderfully scented trailing arbutus. Apologies to Massachusetts, for our ignorant transgressions but now I know better and promise to keep my hands off of Wisconsin’s crop of this Cinderella.

So, keep your eyes open, and your nose keen, for this trio of sisters as they welcome in spring!

For Field Notes, this is Susan Knight of UW-Madison’s Trout Lake Station.