This article was written by Mollie Flanigan, Land Stewardship Coordinator.
Now that spring has sprung, let us welcome in the season with anticipation and appreciation for the amazing plants that are about to erupt from the frozen ground and usher in the growing season.
First to spring into the landscape may not be as well loved as the flowers to follow, but its unique strategy for life in Vermont makes it stand out among the rest.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrusts its flower from the frozen ground in the early spring. One of the few species of plants in the world able to generate heat through a process called thermogenesis, skunk cabbages can melt the frozen soil and snow around itself to emerge and flower before the last gasps of winter have left the landscape.
The skunk cabbage flower blooms and generates heat for twelve to fourteen days, remaining an average of 36 degrees Fahrenheit above the outside temperature day and night. This not only enables the plant to jump start its season, but immediately attracts pollinators. As its name suggests, a skunk cabbage’s flower emits a putrid smell. The stench attracts flies and carrion beetles thinking the flower is food. Instead, they are tricked into pollinating the clever plant.
The other wildflowers that follow the skunk cabbage are not as devious, but they too deploy unique strategies to thrive in Vermont. As a group, they are referred to as ephemerals, a term that captures their survival strategy and why it is so special to catch a glimpse of these forest dwellers. Spring ephemerals are short lived wildflowers that bloom, set seed, and die back, all in the fleeting growing season before the trees overhead leaf out and shade the understory of the forest floor. The wildflowers’ early season approach to life above ground allows them to grow in rich forests that would otherwise be too shady to sustain them. This niche role also provides a key food source for insects, such has bees and flies, early in the season when other food sources are scarce.
As you explore Vermont this spring, keep your eyes out for these common spring ephemerals:
Spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) – very common, white to light pink flower
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) – yellow flower with mottled leaves resembling its namesake fish
Trillium (Trillium sp.) – three petals, three leaves; comes in red, white, and painted (white with pink)
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) – white flower resembling its namesake pants
Do you like identifying plants? Pick up a copy of our Nature Guide to Vermont’s Long Trail for help exploring even more of Vermont’s flora and fauna.