Skunk Cabbage at Dickson Wilderness Area
It is so much fun to go hiking and birdwatching in the springtime. With all the migrating birds arriving daily in Ontario, we never know what surprises are in store for us at places like Dickson Wilderness Area, near Cambridge, Ontario. The same can be said for all the tender new growth that is pushing its way up out of the cold soil. With each passing day, new treasures are to be found amidst the bleached leaf litter on the forest floor. Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is always one of the very first plants to emerge from the frozen earth because this plant is capable of generating its own heat and can even thaw its way through a thin veneer of ice.
It was at F.W.R. Dickson Wilderness Area near Cambridge, Ontario, that Bob and I set off on foot to explore the woodlands, this while on a birdwatching expedition to the area of Grass Lake in search of some Sandhill Cranes. We had never visited these locales before.
A walk through the woods in early spring is a stroll through a sea of grey and brown tree trunks; there is little green to be seen. Patches of ice still glazed the trail where we crossed a wooded wetland, and all was quiet except for the wind in the treetops.
When we approached the edge of this pond, remnants of its frozen surface could be seen bobbing in the still water even yet.
Because our winter here in Ontario had been so harsh with long, drawn-out periods of subzero temperatures and tons of snow, it was no surprise that we found patches of ice and even mounds of snow still remaining in low-lying areas and shady nooks.
Sun-warmed resin scented the air as we meandered along the trail bordering the marshland, partly a result of the tree damage from December’s ice storm. Even as we drove along Highway 401, extensive tree damage was visible everywhere. It was a pleasure to be outdoors on such an unseasonably warm day.
On a south-facing slope along the trail’s edge, I noticed some lobed purple leaves that I knew immediately belonged to Round-lobed Hepatica, a delicate spring-blooming flower that would soon be showing its graceful mauve blossoms.
New leaves that grow in the spring actually persist throughout the winter, so these purplish leaves would be from last season.
I love that an elaborate network of wooden boardwalks snakes through the marshland as it not only kept our footwear dry but protects the delicate plant and animal life beneath our feet.
It was there along the raised platform that Bob and I spotted the first Skunk Cabbages, their striking colour and shape almost impossible to miss. The deep wine-red spathes, as these sculpted, spiral-shaped hoods are called, sometimes are more mottled with stripes of yellow or yellowish-green accenting the background colour.
Not only their colours but also the specific shapes of the spathes are numerous. The hoods are drawn around themselves with only a narrow gap on one side, but they can be pointed, strongly curled, more rounded or squat.
It is when you peer into one of the spathes, which is really a highly-modified leaf, that the true complexity of these plants can be seen. Inside is a globe-shaped flowerhead called a spadix. The spathe protects the budding flower when it first emerges from the ground by keeping it warm and sheltered, and the spathe remains folded around the spadix until it is finished blooming. The flowerheads are so intricate as to be fascinating. Many tiny, tightly-packed flowers grow from a spongy base and combine to form the flowerhead; there are no petals on this plant. Instead, each flower consists of 4 unremarkable pale yellow sepals.
Alongside the blooming Skunk Cabbage, Bob and I could see the tips of large green buds next to the spathes. These would be the developing leaves of the Skunk Cabbage, and often, they can already be seen in the autumn before the snow flies. After Skunk Cabbage is finished blooming, the spathes will wilt signalling the growth of the tightly-packed leaves.
Bob and I found these more developed Skunk Cabbages in a sunnier location along the trail. The spear-shaped furls of the Skunk Cabbage’s emerging leaves grow quickly as the spring temperatures rise and will develop into a stunning arrangement of spiraling leaves that together transform the forest floor into a sea of lush green. Come back in a week and the difference will be shocking.
Skunk Cabbages performing their magic were not the only plants along the nature trail to capture my imagination. Ever since I was a young girl, my sister and I would look forward to gathering Wintergreen Berries for a tasty, refreshing treat in the early spring. When Bob and I discovered a wide slope in the forest supporting masses of Wintergreen plants (Gaultheria procumbens), I was ecstatic.
In all our childhood innocence, neither my sister nor I realized that these delectable, mint-flavored berries were more correctly referred to as Eastern Teaberry, Checkerberry or Boxberry. All we knew was that the shiny leaves are evergreen, and if it was possible to snip off a few fresh ones to chew (because older leaves are leathery), the delicate, wintergreen oil was released on our tongues making for a pleasant taste. No wonder it is employed in the manufacture of dental products, gums and candies.
Wintergreen plants usually favour a south-facing slope where their rhizomes can spread easily through the fibrous root layer at the surface of the soil. It is in acidic soil of pine and hardwood forests where they thrive. These indigenous, creeping plants grow to about five inches in height and spread slowly. There were so many plants where Bob and I found them that it took no time to gather a modest handful of the sweet berries.
The Wintergreen plants would not be in bloom for another few weeks. The flowers will hang on the curving stems below the leaves, and develop into bright red berries by September. The berries are long-lasting, and those that I picked had been on the plants all winter long. The berries are actually a dry capsule around a fleshy calyx making the texture rather mealy. A star-shaped depression marks the bottom of each berry. When I popped this handful into my mouth, Bob compared me to a chipmunk, which is one of the animals that like to eat these tasty fruits.
Bob and I continued on our merry way and eventually broke through the bush to the edge of a pond, drawn there by the tracks of other people who had gone in for a closer look. A plethora of Skunk Cabbages were poking up through the saturated soil, so we had to tread lightly.
A glance out over the water revealed one lone turtle sunning on a submerged log.
Through our binoculars, it looked to be a Midland Painted Turtle.
When it was time to return to Grass Lake in search of the Sandhill Cranes, Bob and I regained the parking lot by circling the other side of the pond. The trails were slick with mud so we had to be cautious, all the while on the lookout for any migrating species of birds. Before we exited the woods, we did come upon a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and some sort of Flycatcher, so we deemed the Dickson Wilderness Area, near Cambridge, Ontario, to be quite a rewarding place to hike.