Week of February 12, 2023 – February 18, 2023
by Bridget Jones, Environmental Educator
This past week, we had a spectacularly sunny day in between the clouds, snow, and rain. Temperatures warmed up enough to melt most of the snow and ice on the trails, providing a brief glimpse of spring in the middle of winter. Although the warmth was unusual for this time of year, I couldn’t help but welcome the feeling of the sun on my face as I went out for a hike.
As I walked through a beaver meadow on the Griffith’s Trail, I noticed a sign of life that made it feel even more like spring. Peeking out from a hole in the snow was the unmistakable bloom of a skunk cabbage! Dappled with red and green and shaped like a lobster’s claw, these strange wildflowers are often the first sign of spring in our area. Skunk cabbage typically blooms in late February or early March, often emerging from right beneath a layer of snow.
When I see plants bloom during unexpected warm spells in winter, I’m often concerned that they might not survive the return of cold weather. However, skunk cabbage is well suited to the cold because of an incredible adaptation: they can produce their own heat. By breaking down starch stored in their roots, skunk cabbage triggers a chemical reaction that creates heat. This allows the plant to maintain temperatures of 60-70° F, even when the air temperature is below freezing! As the plant warms up, it melts the snow around it, giving easier access to the sun above.
We still have several weeks of winter left, but the bloom of skunk cabbage is a reminder that warmer weather is approaching. Over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for these fascinating plants in marshes, wetlands, and along the edges of streams. If you spot one, take a moment to appreciate its ability to create a tiny pocket of spring warmth in the middle of winter.