Nature: Welcome, sweet springtime



Skunk cabbage on a riverbank in early spring. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Skunk cabbage blossoms appeared the first day of spring. This flower has long been a favorite of mine, but many people do not even know it exists or only know the unpleasant smell given off when the large, green leaves are crushed. Even though it is still cold and there may be ice and snow on land and water, this interesting wildflower blooms and is beautiful and unique looking. The deep red blossom takes the form of a sheath curling elegantly over a small, round, yellowish ball with little projections on it. The blossom reminds me of the old custom of sticking cloves in an orange and then placing it in an attractive bowl in a room to give off a pleasant aroma.

Skunk cabbage starts off with its unique red wine-colored flower even when snow and ice are still plentiful. This plant can generate temperatures from 15 to 35 degrees centigrade right through frozen ground. It is a thermogenic plant, which means it can flower in the snow, and it is pollinated by emerging carrion-eating insects that are attracted to the heat. Eastern skunk cabbage roots grow downward and the plants are almost impossible to dig up. Carrion flies and some insects are attracted to the plant as well as some butterflies that are attracted to carrion.

In the 19th century, popular botanist Euell Gibbons wrote a book about eating wild plants, including skunk cabbage leaves. It was a great book, and I must confess I did try cattail pollen pancakes with success and fried tiger lily flowers, but I did not ever try cooking skunk cabbage leaves. The skunk cabbage flowers, however, are well worth many photographs.

A reader wrote to me recently to tell me about a milk snake he had found in his basement. This is one of the snakes found here on Mount Desert Island. All snakes found on MDI are harmless. The milk snake is quite a beauty with its bands of red, black, yellow and white. It can be 2- or 3-feet long. The milk snake is not quick to bite, and harmless if it does. It may shake its tail to frighten you. They are mostly nocturnal but are sometimes seen in the daytime. They do NOT drink milk from cows but may be in barns and outbuildings looking for rodents. In cold Maine winters, finding one in a basement or dirt cellar is quite possible as the snake is seeking a warm place to survive. With spring arriving, it will be able to go outdoors soon. Be kind to your wild neighbors!

Male and female wood duck on a nest box.
GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

As soon as woodland ponds are free of ice, watch for wood ducks. Wood ducks are very beautiful, but quite secretive.

They love small bodies of water in the woods or at the wild edges of ponds and lakes. In later winter, they pair up and look for a nest site such as a hollow tree or a wood duck box put up for them. They begin breeding in early spring.

I had a pair of these ducks nesting in a box we had put up for them on a telephone pole near our house. This duck likes manmade houses placed near pools at the edges of small ponds or waterways. These houses could be just a few feet above the water level, or 30-49 feet high. The babies are so fluffy and light they just leap from the openings of their bird house and float gently to the ground. They can bounce when landing! A federal game warden friend once told me that these birds had a 50/50 chance of survival once they reached the water, even without the parents. I don’t know if that is true or not now.

Listen for the many love songs birds are making now that spring has arrived.

 

Send any questions or observations to [email protected]

 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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