By the end of January, we were about to conclude that all the woolly bear and Farmers' Almanac predictions for a severe winter were wrong. Then, right on cue, the famous Punxsutawney Pete emerged from his burrow and, not seeing his shadow, opined that spring was at hand. The following weekend we had the first snow of the year, and the very next Friday, the worst blast of cold and snow in years. So much for perfidious, prevaricating Pete.
But take heart. There's a more reliable weather forecaster than famous Pete. Just about now, in bogs along creek banks and in swamps that have been spared the spade and plow, the first sure harbinger of spring is poking through the ground -- even, at times, through the slowly melting snow banks.
Give a warm welcome to the skunk cabbage -- the very first of the spring flowers.
Don't let the name of this brave flower mislead you into disregard for its noble nature. If you don't like skunk cabbage, try its scientific name symplocarpus foetidus, though you don't have to be a Latin scholar to guess that that last name hints of something offensive to the olfactory senses.
Its mottled, greenish-red, cowl-like spathe isn't spectacular along the lines of the later- blooming trillium or bloodroot, but it houses a neat little symbiotic economy. First, the skunk cabbage is one of the very few plants that generate their own heat. That's why it doesn't wait for all the snow to melt to push its way upward and declare its faith that spring is at hand. A thermometer placed in the heart of a skunk cabbage often registers 6 to 10 degrees above the temperature of the surrounding air.
The warmth thus produced attracts the first hatch of flies, which pay for their shelter by helping to pollinate the flower. This function is performed later for more colorful and sweet-smelling flowers by bees, who are too timid to venture out in the cold of the lingering winter.
The presence of flies, in turn, prompts the spider to weave its web in the warm shelter of the plant's cowl. So, when you find a skunk cabbage, you may well see a cozy houseguest well supplied with both heat and food.
Early settlers ascribed medicinal qualities to the skunk cabbage, though their directions called for boiling the leaves in three changes of water and adding a bit of soda to rid the brew of offensive odors.
Gardeners and plant lovers, impressed by the qualities of the skunk cabbage, may consider transplanting some specimens to their gardens. But they're confronted by two obstacles, one practical and one sentimental.
The practical consideration is that this early-blooming perennial, which measures only about six to eight inches in height, usually has a root reaching three to four feet into the ground. On the sentimental side, biologists tell us that this deep root is also among the oldest living things on this continent, actually rivaling the venerable West Coast redwood trees. So have some respect for old age: I beg you, disturb not the centuries-old root of the noble symplocarpus foetidus.