I’ve just arrived in New England for the very first suggestions of spring, after five months working at a research base in Antarctica, and a month in the glorious backwoods of New Zealand. Spring is a particularly spectacular time to return – it means yellow spotted salamander migration, savory ostrich fern fiddleheads (some to saute fresh in butter, some to pickle with mustard seeds and garlic and dill to put on sandwiches during the long summer months), and a sudden filling-in of all the empty spaces between trees on the muddy riverside paths near my childhood home.
The river is an intriguing little microcosm; due to its meandering nature, it has a wide and sandy floodplain. As wet sand is fairly inhospitable, it gives rise to some particularly hearty inhabitants. The awkward configuration of the fungi Calostoma cinnabarinum, also known as hot lips or stalked puffball in aspic, is often scattered gregariously around the trailside. It looks a bit like a fattened rosehip resting on a spoonful of seedy plum jelly. Poison ivy abounds, as well as woodpeckers and lignicolous (wood-decaying) fungi, all of which take advantage of downed branches and rotting trees which have been moistened by high water in the spring.
My favorite plant here, and one of the earliest risers, is the eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus.
I appreciate skunk cabbage in the full bloom of summer, when its broad leaves blanket the river banks in a cool green, and it lends a tropical feel to my river walks. It also adds a hint of pungency to the air when full grown, a slightly sour scent that draws insects to the flowers, especially when I stray from the trail and accidentally catch a brittle stem under my boot.
In spite of the appeal of the broad leaves of summer, skunk cabbage is most spectacular as a babe, when its first daring spring tendrils push up through the silt and sand, twisted like ram’s horns, and wonderfully, garishly purple. Hidden inside the conch shell curve of the young spathe (the purpley leaf whose sole purpose, like a seashell, is to protect what lies within) is the slender and yellow-golden spadex, a branch of hidden flowers.
As spring progresses, the spathes wilt, and the tip of the tightly packed leaves grow and slowly unfold, wrinkled at first like the new wings of a butterfly. As the leaves grow up and out, the roots grow down in the mud and then contract- the older the plant, the more it has pulled itself down in the earth, protecting the remnants of summer until a new spring begins.
To top it all off, the skunk cabbage is one of a very small group of flora that are capable of producing their own heat (called thermogenic plants). In the very earliest days of spring, it isn’t unusual to find them inside a ring of snow melt when the surrounding area is dusted in snow. Their oxygen consumption, and ensuing heat production, is comparable to a mammal of similar size, and they are able to sustain it for weeks at a time.
Thoreau spoke of their early buds: “See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”
It is hard not to feel admiration for the perseverance of a plant that chooses the chilly and nutrient-poor sands of springtime by my river to arise in such delicate clusters of pink and purple. They are also so plentiful – a pervasive and iconic part of an ecosystem that I hold dear.