In an effort to dispel the winter doldrums, we are prone to seek any sign that spring is just around the corner. I look for the first shoots of daffodils or crocuses to peek through the grass. I also examine the buds of trees and shrubs hoping to
see some sign of renewed growth. Along the streams and the edges of ponds alder shrubs are among the first harbingers of spring.
Other trees, such as birches and bald cypress show signs, too, with their male catkins (caterpillar-like hanging blooms) elongating to release pollen to fertilize the much smaller cone-like female structures.
If you look closely in the meadows, you can find the tiny white flowered Cardamine, or bitter cress, already blooming in January. A splash of hot pink can be seen in the bloom of the storks-bill geranium, so named because the seed pod, which appears later, looks like the head and bill of a stork. So make a note to return on a later hike and enjoy that, too. Even more evidence of spring is found with the blooming of the first dandelion (more welcome in the meadow than our manicured yards).
Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
Snow, no problem for the Skunk Cabbage
Meanwhile as all of this searching is going on, the humble skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) has long since pushed its flower upwards as early as late December and early January. The presence of ice and snow is no deterrent. Since the internal temperature of the flower spike can be as much as sixty degrees above the ambient air temperature, the spikes literally melt their way upward.
Skunk Cabbage Bloom Because the bloom is green and blotched with purple, plus the fact that it does not fit our normal idea of a flower, they are mostly overlooked. They grow happily in the streamside mud and muck of wooded swamps. Later in the spring they appear as a colony of large, cabbage-like green plants. The leaves and stems when crushed emit a skunky odor giving the plant its well-deserved common name. Skunk cabbage belongs to a group of flowering plants called Arums. The florist’s Calla lily belongs to this group. All Arum flowers consists of a leaf like structure called a spathe, which wraps more or less around a central seed producing spike, called a spadix. There are three easily recognizable members of the Arum family found on Nature Preserve lands.
The Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica) grows along the streamside sometimes even into the edges of flowing streams and rivers. The leaves are large, pointed, notched at the base and look very much like arrow points. Once more the flowers are whitish green and easily overlooked. The overall plant height can be as much as two feet.
The third member of this group is the more familiar Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) whose spathe curls over the spadix (or humorously, Jack). This is reminiscent of some early American churches in which the pulpit was often an elevated, covered architectural detail at the side or corner of the sanctuary. So who was Jack? My guess is that it may refer to John Wesley, an early American circuit rider preacher, and the Father of Methodism.
The cells of all three Arums contain crystals of calcium oxalate which causes a
fiery, burning sensation in the mouth and tongue. My Grandmother used this to
her advantage in a home remedy to cure any dog that had developed the nasty
habit of eating the farm fresh eggs that she intended for market (referred to in the
vernacular as an “egg sucking dog”). The cure was to break a fresh egg onto a pie
plate and grate some raw Jack-in-the-Pulpit root over the surface. This was placed
where the procreant would discover it. Since the burning sensation is a delayed
reaction, all of the egg was lapped up before the burning began. Grandmother
said the naughty pup would never steal an egg again. (I must add as a humane
naturalist, no permanent harm was done to the canine, warning however, it is
These charming plants can be enjoyed in many locations in the Milford Millponds Nature Preserve. A good place to start is the boardwalk trail behind Abbott’s Mill and the Nature Center. Look for the pointed spikes of green and purple pushing up in the wooded swamp. And, enjoy your new insight into these most interesting plants.