Home Opinion Seeking spring’s smelly harbinger

Seeking spring’s smelly harbinger


The strange little skunk cabbage seems an unlikely candidate for making anyone’s list of sought-after spring wildflowers.

They simply don’t look like a flower. In fact, they’re decidedly weird – maybe even a bit alien, like something dropped from a UFO in an old Hollywood sci-fi flick.

A charitable friend calls them “disconcerting.”

This strange little plant’s actual blossoms are inconspicuous, and the noxious color of peeled flesh. The tiny blooms are affixed to a thick, stubby spadix, which in turn is located inside a green-and-purple hood-like sheath called a spathe.

You have to get down on your knees, face close to the ground, in order to peer inside and see these diminutive hidden blooms.

True to its name, skunk cabbage smells bad — a reeking odor that has been described as combining “a suspicion of skunk, putrid meat, and old garlic.”

Regardless of the air temperature, you’ll generally find at least a few flies swarming around the plants, drawn by the faint, fetid aroma.

Not the most enduring features for a favorite wildflower… right? Except that skunk cabbage is also the first bloomer of the season. And as a friend of mine likes to say, “Everyone loves a harbinger!”

Throughout the years, nature writers have indeed shown a special fondness for this unusual plant — in part, doubtless due to its early appearance.

John Burroughs observed how skunk cabbage “is ready to welcome and make the most of the first fitful March warmth.”

Henry David Thoreau counseled that anyone afflicted with winter’s melancholy should go into the swamps “and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage… already advancing toward the new year.”

Naturally, I’m as big a sucker for spring’s harbingers as the next fellow. For years I’ve made at least one mid-March trip to a skunk cabbage patch. And though I do actually like this offbeat plant, I think it’s also fair to say that part of what I seek on these annual quests is a personal reassurance of nature’s continuum — a chance to satisfy a prevailing need for visual heartening.

We outdoorsy types regularly pay attention to certain signs and portents when it comes to seasons. Looking at a calendar is one thing. But calendars require faith. Touching an actual plant in bloom, however — even an ugly, stinky one — is an act of evidence, an unassailable tactile truth and fact.

Some years there’s snow on the ground when I make my pilgrimage. Other times it’s cold but dry, or rainy and muddy. Or I might get lucky and enjoy a sojourn in shirt sleeves.

No matter, you can’t allow weather to dissuade you from your mission. I can no more imagine a spring passing without my seeing at least a few skunk cabbage than I can envision missing out on the blooms of hepaticas, bloodroot, trout lilies or bluets.

Skunk cabbage isn’t uncommon hereabouts, but you have to look in the right places — boggy edges, wet corners, dim, damp woodsy borders. Areas affording plenty of moist shade come leaf-out.

Locally, I’ve found skunk cabbage patches in numerous locations — at the Aullwood Audubon facility, Sycamore Park, off an Englewood Reserve back-in trail, above Taylorsville Dam, and along both Twin Creek and Seven Mile Creek, to name just a few.

Two of my favorite skunk cabbage spots are near Rush Run Lake and a dandy at the head of a back-in at Caesar Creek Lake bay. Both are special because they have so many plants — a veritable multitude. This unusual profusion of skunk cabbage — several hundred during peak times — is always worth the trek.

Besides, what better way do you know to spend a pre-spring day than by taking a long ramble? Of course, the landscape still looks more wintery than springlike — fields brown and lifeless, the woods barren of their usual leaves. Not much birdsong.

Yet clumps of tender onion grass are bright green daubs. Red maple buds, swollen and ready to open, gleam in crimson mist. A weeping willow near a brook cascades like a yellow fountain.

A patch of skunk cabbage, with its unmistakable purple-brown monk’s cowls poking above the mud, always strikes me as Tolkienesque — reminiscent of a bunch of little hobbits stuck in the mire.

Some events are just too important to miss.

When you go afield in search of spring, skunk cabbage’s proclamation is truly welcome — heartwarming, foretelling, an uplifting message from a cherished harbinger.

Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected].