March 11, 2023
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
Snow sifts through the trees, piling on the deep drifts still on the ground, as we make our way down to Minnehaha Creek. We’ve come on our first wildflower search of the year to look for the first wildflower of the year: skunk cabbage. Near the end of a long winter, we are hungry for wildflowers.
Behind us the falls roar. Next to the path the creek flows fast and ice-free on its way to join the Mississippi River. We cross a bridge and cautiously creep along the snow-covered boardwalk to the first opening in the snow. Down in the wet ground two purplish pointed shapes poke up, curling around each other.
A little farther along in open water on the creek side of the boardwalk we find at least a dozen more skunk cabbages emerging. Each will eventually open to reveal a round yellow center covered with small white flowers that, so they say, give off a skunkish sort of smell we have yet to experience.
It will be weeks before the next early spring flowers appear, the snow trilliums and hepaticas. Why is skunk cabbage so early?
Like many other woodland flowers, skunk cabbage needs to bloom and gather its share of sunlight before the trees overhead leaf out and shade the ground. What makes skunk cabbage even earlier than other springtime wildflowers are its deep, extensive roots that provide starch for the plant to generate its own heat–as much as 70 degrees–to melt its way up out of the frozen earth. Snow doesn’t stand a chance.
As we make our way back up the slippery slope of a road snow still falls, icing the bare branches of the trees. But we know that under the snow skunk cabbages, like us, are burning for spring.