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Chicago Nature Now! Alert
March 2, 2018
Spring Is Here!

“Chicago nature info and news to help you discover the region’s finest natural wonders.”

 

IT’S OFFICIAL. SPRING HAS SPRUNG IN CHICAGO!

In Chicago, spring officially arrives when sprouts of skunk cabbage push up from the muck. On February 27, I found them at Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet (pictured below) and at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont. Given their sizes and numbers, I’d estimate that spring sprung around February 20.

Here’s a photograph of skunk cabbage from my February 27th visit to Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet:

Skunk cabbage at Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet, Illinois.

Skunk cabbage at Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet, Illinois on February 27, 2018.

As is my tradition, each spring I post the entertaining and educational excerpt and poem about skunk cabbage from my book, “My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders.”

Searching for Spring

For me, the beginning of spring does not arrive in a fanfare of color. Rather, it begins subtly. In early March, burgundy spathes of skunk cabbage, dappled with yellow stripes and spots, quietly emerge from beneath a cloak of brown decaying leaves or, by way of a rare heat-generating process called thermogenesis, melt their way to the surface through layers of late winter ice and snow. And when March arrives, snow or not, I meander my way around Black Partridge Woods in a hopeful search for spring:

Winter is waning;
I’ve made it to March.
With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.
The temperature rises.
The snow slowly melts.
With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.
Are you under the white
in a warmth all your own?
With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.
Are you hiding in leaves
or still waiting to rise?
With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.
Leafing through litter
on the brown woodland floor,
With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.
Finally up from the mud
sprouts a burgundy curl.
With eyes to the ground, it is Spring I have found.

 

 

Thermogenesis is a rare property that is shared by only a few of Earth’s plants, one of which is skunk cabbage. Concealed deep inside this burgundy hood is a tiny, “green” furnace, generating heat that can rise as much as 63°F above the ambient air temperature. This easily allows the curling spathe to melt the surrounding snow and break through the surface.

Thermogenesis is a rare property that is shared by only a few of Earth’s plants, one of which is skunk cabbage. Concealed deep inside this burgundy hood is a tiny, “green” furnace, generating heat that can rise as much as 63°F above the ambient air temperature. This easily allows the curling spathe to melt the surrounding snow and break through the surface.*

 

The speckled maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as it grows larger and produces its curious, oval-shaped yellow flower head, known as a spadix. The tiny delicate protrusions you see on the spadix are the flowers. The spadix emits a foul odor that, to a human, is reminiscent of skunk. However, to flesh flies, carrion flies, and several kinds of gnats, the spadix smells and looks more like a yummy dead animal, a trick the plant uses to lure them in for pollination. The spadix is also where the process of thermogenesis takes place. It warms the confines of the spathe, providing a cozy haven for pollinating insects while transmitting the smell of carrion far and wide.

The speckled maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as it grows larger and produces its curious, oval-shaped yellow flower head, known as a spadix. The tiny delicate protrusions you see on the spadix are the flowers.
The shape and foul odor of the spadix reminds flesh flies, carrion flies, and several kinds of gnats of a yummy dead animal, a trick the plant uses to lure them in for pollination. The spadix is also where the process of thermogenesis takes place. It warms the confines of the spathe, providing a cozy haven for pollinating insects while transmitting the smell of carrion far and wide.*

 

These tender leaves of skunk cabbage will soon develop into giants, up to two feet long and one foot wide.

These tender leaves of skunk cabbage will soon develop into giants, up to two feet long and one foot wide.*

 

It's springtime at Pilcher Park and sunlight shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage which, if broken, releases a strong scent reminiscent of skunk, though sweeter and not nearly as overpowering. If you’re someone who, like me, finds the powerful essence of skunk to be an invigorating and life-affirming experience, the skunk inside the cabbage will definitely let you down.

It’s springtime at Pilcher Park and sunlight shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage which, if broken, releases a strong scent reminiscent of skunk, though sweeter and not nearly as overpowering. If you’re someone who, like me, finds the powerful essence of skunk to be an invigorating and life-affirming experience, the skunk inside the cabbage will definitely let you down.*

 

* Photo is representational and was not recorded this year. Bloom times vary from year to year.

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—Mike

 

© 2018, Mike MacDonald. All rights reserved.