Skunk cabbage emerges in spring.

Spring is coming! For the first time in I don’t know how many years, that little creature for which we named Groundhog Day opted to emerge from his burrow and forego six more weeks of hibernation. Who can blame him? With all this sunshine and unseasonably warm weather, it’s hard to believe we’ve got a few more weeks of winter left to go.

It was a mild winter. Our largest snowfall yielded at most six inches, which seemed like nothing compared to last year’s seemingly endless supply. The snow moon — February’s full moon — has now passed, leaving only cold, clear weather in its wake. On the calendar, winter continues through March 20 (and this being New England, we can’t really be sure it’s behind us until May), but it’s time to start looking for signs of spring.

Let’s start with the most obvious: the sun. Those long dark days of winter have passed, the days when the sun only seemed to shine from nine to five, when most people were too busy doing other things to really take notice. The days are growing longer again — the sun’s up by 6:30 a.m., and it stays light until almost six at night. Longer days bring more opportunities for walking around and observing the natural world as it awakens from its winter nap.

Maple sap has begun to run. The process of tapping maples for their sugary sap dates at least as far back as 1609. It’s a skill the colonists learned from Native tribes and turned into a major New England industry. Each sugar maple yields from five to sixty gallons of sap, which can be boiled down into the syrup we know and love. Look for little ice formations at the tips of sugar maple twigs for evidence of sap-running.

The buds are on the forsythia, so now is a a prime time to clip some branches from this sun-loving upland shrub. Set the clippings in a vase of water and soon you will have a bouquet of bright yellow flowers. Forsythia don’t bloom in their natural setting until April, but they respond well to forcing.

If you’d rather a more naturally-appearing flower at this time of year, keep an eye out for snowdrops. Although these small white perennials are not native to this region, they are a favorite among bulb-planters, as they are one of the earliest flowers to emerge from the warming winter ground. Once established, they tend to multiply, appearing in increasing numbers in sunny, well-drained places. Seeing snowdrops, one can’t help but ask: can daffodils be far behind?

The appearance of pussy willows is another sure sign of spring’s arrival. Before the leaves of the salix discolor form, it produces catkins. Sometimes bright yellow or green, other times drab in color, these furry little flowers help to identify this shrub.

Pussy willows grow in swamps, along streams, and in other damp places. The shrub itself can grow to 12 feet high, its numerous branches providing good nesting, breeding, and overwintering sites for a variety of wildlife species. Once you’ve identified a patch of pussy willow, step back and watch for food-seeking mammals. Beaver, red squirrel, meadow mice, and deer each enjoy snacking on a different part of this plant, from the leaves of the twigs to the catkins to the bark.

The vivid green leaves of skunk cabbage (symplocarpus foeidus) are another sign of spring. This wetland-loving plant takes its name from the odor produced when its flowers are crushed. Skunk cabbage actually begins its development in the fall, so by February it is ready to respond to even the most subtle seasonable changes, often emerging through the swamp floor on a warm, sunny day. The plant itself generates a lot of heat, with temperatures rising up to twenty degrees higher than the air which surrounds it, so that it often will melt any snow and ice in its midst.

Skunk cabbage may stink, but wetland creatures find it most appealing, what with the services it provides. Up to three feet tall, with large, veined leaves and thick fleshy root stocks, its dense growth supplies important cover and breeding habitat for the wildlife. Skunk cabbage often dominates swamp areas, but since its deep root systems help to stabilize the soil and thus prevent erosion in these frequently flooded areas, its profusion is rarely seen as a problem. The first plant to flower in spring, it is also a valuable source of pollen for bees.

If, like the skunk cabbage, you find yourself so impatient for spring that you’re trying to melt any snow and ice that crosses your path, consider stepping out into the woods. Spring is indeed on its way and wetlands are great places to see evidence of this. Why not take an hour or two to explore the freshwater swamps at Norwell’s Jacobs Pond and Norris Reservation, Pembroke’s Tucker Reservation, or Marshfield’s Corn Hill Woodland.

If you go, don’t forget your boots. The thick patches of mud that one encounters on just about any woodland trail at this time of year are yet another sign that the ground is thawing and spring is on its way.

by Kezia Bacon
Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
February 1997