Published March 20. 2014 4:00AM
Eyes parched for the vibrant palette of new life after this long, cold winter need look no further on this first day of spring than a nearby swamp.
There, pointed-head gnomes in splashy purple and green hues poke up from the still frigid earth, emerging from winter burrows on the heat of their own internal furnaces to signal that the vernal equinox has finally arrived. These are the spades of skunk cabbages, an underappreciated but unique plant found in most healthy wetlands throughout the Northeast that's also a reliable ambassador of the new season.
"Skunk cabbage generates its own heat," said Jeff Ward, chief scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. "I've seen it nosing its way up through the melting snow. It burns the sugars stored in its roots. It's almost like a warm-blooded animal."
The spades of the plant that emerge this time of year cradle the spadix, a brown flower awaiting pollination by the early flies and other insects attracted by its notorious funky odor. As the spring advances, new plants will take root from the newly pollinated seeds and grow into the familiar neon green fans that spread along the banks of streams and swamps.
"It's definitely what I think of as the first wildflower of spring," said Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, where the colorful skunk cabbage spades now popping up out of the wetlands are providing some of the only contrast to grays and browns of the winter forest landscape.
Known by botanists as symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage belongs to the same family as lilies and Jack-in-the-pulpit but is notable as one of the few in the entire plant kingdom with the ability of thermogenesis, warming the soil as high as 70 degrees even when ice still covers the ponds. With its "immense" root system and hardy temperament, skunk cabbage provides a valuable service at keeping wetlands soils from eroding away after heavy rains, Dreyer said.
While skunk cabbage might be the most pronounced sign of spring thus far, it's not the only one awaiting the observant searcher.
"Look at the red maples, and you'll see the buds are starting to swell," Ward said. "Some of the early grasses are starting to poke up."
At the arboretum, Dreyer said, the red-shouldered hawks are getting more active, and the woods are getting a bit noisier with chatter of smaller birds.
"I heard a pileated woodpecker banging away the other day," he said. "Everybody's poised for things to start."
While many people won't look back fondly on the season that just ended, the long winter with its gradual snowmelt has actually been good for the forests, Dreyer and Ward said. The lowest temperatures were well within the range native hardwoods and evergreens are adapted for, but invasive pests such as the woolly adelgids that attack hemlocks have been killed off. Populations of ticks that carry Lyme disease and other infectious bacteria are also reduced by prolonged cold weather.
The snowpack acted as an insulator to help protect the tree roots. The slow melt means the soils will be well saturated and groundwater sources replenished by the time the trees leaf out in the coming weeks and start sucking up large amounts of water, they said.
For now, though, skunk cabbage may have to suffice as the surest sign of the season of new growth. It even has a bit in common with the namesake vegetable that's paired with corned beef this time of year. But unlike green or red cabbage, skunk cabbage can't be eaten raw - it contains oxalate that creates an intense burning sensation in the mouth - but it can be if cooked in soups or stews, Dreyer said.
And for those not repulsed by the stink of the leaves and still hungry for more, the roots offer a different culinary experience.
"If you dig it up and slice it very thin, and completely dry it out, you can make a flour that tastes like chocolate," Ward said.