Skunk Cabbage: A Sure Sign of Spring!

When we were kids growing up in Alberta, we eagerly looked for the first robin. After the long snowy winter, that flash of red and cheery song signaled we had made it through that challenging season at last. Now here in Olympia I have flocks of robins in January—January!—and some years they never seem to migrate at all. Still, we have a winter of a sort so I still crave a genuine sign of Spring.

Reading Margaret’s Nature Notes, I now look for bright yellow instead of red: I look for Skunk Cabbage. It grows in wet swampy places; I usually find my specimens in Watershed Park where water collects along the bottomlands. The golden yellow upright stalk is like a flag. But I have learned from Margaret that colorful as it is, this is not the flower part of the plant. The piece that rises up and acts as a protective shield for the spiky part is really a leaf called a spathe. The flower, really multiple tiny flowers, cluster on a thick stem called the spadix. If you look closely you will likely see small beetles that are drawn to the pollen as food, but which help spread the pollen amongst the flowers as they clamber about. Later these flowers mature into green berries, which in turn fall into the soil and grow more plants. As you are bending near to examine all these working parts of the plant, take a breath and experience the tonic “scent.” And remember its name! Spring comes with a clap!

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