Reflections in Nature: Spring woods are awakening

Just as Easter is a time of new beginnings, the winter woods also are a time of new beginnings. The change from winter woods to spring woods is so gradual that the awakening will go unnoticed until completely changed.

The first greening of the spring woods will be the skunk cabbage poking up through the damp ground. It is our first wildflower to appear.

Even though there may be snow on the ground, the plant is able to survive because the flower is surrounded by a spathe, which feels like Styrofoam, that keeps the flower 20 degrees warmer than the outside air.

Skunk cabbage has a large tap root that creates the heat that collects in the spathe.

The plant has an odor that is compared to that of a skunk; hence, the common name of skunk cabbage. The skunk cabbage’s scientific name is foetidus, meaning “foul-smelling.”

Skunk cabbage cannot be pollinated by the wind because of the spathe covering the flower. Because there are no bees or butterflies out in March, cross-pollination is not possible; however, carrion beetles, which are looking for smelly, dead animals that did not make it through the winter, also are attracted to the skunk cabbage because of its pungent odor. That’s how the skunk cabbage is cross pollinated.

One has to wonder why the plant blooms so early. The answer is that it takes it four months to develop the seeds and five to seven years for the seeds to germinate; however, the plant can live up to 25 years.

Other flowers appearing in the spring woods are the May apple, trout lily, bloodroot and ferns known as fiddleheads.

When the May apple, also known as the mandrake, pokes up through the soil, a stem can be seen, surrounded by large leaves that are closed and appear as a folded umbrella. As the stem continues to grow the umbrella opens, allowing the leaves to shelter a single waxy, white flower.

In May, the plant eventually will produce a fruit, which is compared to a small apple; hence, the name May apple. The May apples are edible after turning to a lemony-yellow color; however, the remaining parts of the plant are poisonous.

Another white flower found in the spring woods is the bloodroot, which can be up to 2 inches across and grows on a stem that rises from the rootstock. Its single leaf has three to seven deep lobes.

The common name of bloodroot comes from the deep reddish-brown sap that comes from the roots. The Native Americans used this sap as war paint and also to dye cloth and baskets.

Because bloodroot is one of the early wildflowers, it sometimes is hit with a late frost, which causes the leaves to curl around the base of the stem to give the flower some protection from the cold. However, a severe cold snap will cause all of the flower’s petals to fall off.

The leaves, which unfurl only after the plant is pollinated, continue to grow until mid-summer. The blooming of the bloodroot occurs while the trees are leafless, allowing sunlight to penetrate onto the forest floor.

When walking in the early spring woods, be sure to look for greenish-purple points emerging from the ground. These emerging plants eventually will be the mottled leaves of the yellow trout lily, or adder’s tongue.

The common name of adder’s tongue comes from the long, protruding stamens. The common name of trout lily comes from the fact that it blooms during trout season. It has been said that the spotted leaves resemble a trout’s markings.

I have read that there are 250 species of ferns growing in North America and that the fern seen in early spring is the cinnamon fern.

Last year’s ferns, which have been flattened by the winter’s snow, have been protecting buds that are clothed in a silky down. As spring continues, the tight buds rise above last year’s ferns and become the familiar fiddleheads.

Later, after uncoiling, the fiddleheads form feathery fronds, which are divided leaves. Ferns do not reproduce by seeds as flowering plants do but by microscopic-size spores carried by the wind into many inaccessible places.

Along with plants bringing new life to the spring woods are songbirds, wood frogs and spring peepers. April will produce days that give us spring fever, and the best cure that I know of is to take a walk in the spring woods and watch and listen to the woods coming alive.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.