Nature Notes from Common Ground

Week of March 8, 2021

Skunk Cabbage Flowering

With the warmer, sunnier days we’ve been having, the honeybees Tim cares for have gotten a chance to leave the hive. In addition to cleansing flights (read: “pooping”), the bees are looking for pollen. This time of year, the pickings are pretty slim, but there is one amazing flower that is blooming right now, sometimes even pushing its way up through ice and snow! It is the flower of eastern skunk cabbage (symplocarpus foetidus), found in wet and swampy forested areas.

If you’ve ever torn or crushed the leaf of skunk cabbage, you’ll know how this plant got its common name: it smells like skunk. This is pretty cool and fun if you want to trick people like Tim who are scared of skunks, but this flower has an even more amazing quality: it can generate its own heat! We often think of plants producing oxygen through photosynthesis, but skunk cabbages also absorb oxygen from the atmosphere and burn stored starches to produce heat (thermogenesis). The heat given off by the skunk cabbage flower keeps it from freezing, and also allows it to melt and push through ice and snow as it grows. Because it is thermogenic, the skunk cabbage flower is one of the first flowers to bloom at winter’s end.

Most flowers need pollinators, and the heat the skunk cabbage generates helps attract pollinators in two ways. First, the warmth of the flower intensifies its smell (just like heating spices when mulling cider will fill your home with a lovely aroma), which helps it advertise to nearby pollinators. Second, the heat of the flower, combined with its hood-like shape, creates a little cave of warmth for visiting pollinators. This tiny shelter can reach up to 70 degrees inside! When foraging on a cold day, honeybees can warm up inside the skunk cabbage flower to help them make it back to the hive. If you see skunk cabbage while out walking, try putting your finger inside the flower to see if you can feel its warmth. Just be careful not to disturb a resting bee!


Nature activity of the week

Start Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds in your house or classroom is an easy and fun way to bring spring indoors and teach children about plant life cycles and what plants need to grow.


Pot - you have many choices here. You could use a store-bought plant pot, or a paper cup, or a milk carton, or a toilet paper tube with the end folded in. It doesn’t much matter, as long as it can both hold soil and let water drain out of it. Make sure there are some holes poked in the bottom for drainage.

Soil - any potting soil will do

Seeds - Select plant varieties that kids are interested in, that sprout quickly, and that are easy to grow. If kids are small, choose larger seeds that are easier for little hands to manage. You want to set yourself and your children up for success! Some good choices are:

  • Sunflowers

  • Greens: lettuce, spinach, mesclun - especially if you have a shadier area to grow in

  • Snow/snap peas

  • Tomatoes - especially cherry tomatoes, that kids can eat straight off the vine

  • Beans

  • Pumpkins

  • Nasturtium

What to do:

  1. Fill your pot with soil
  2. Read your seed packet for instructions on how to plant this particular seed. Some seeds like to be planted deep in the soil and some like to be right on the surface. If you don’t have a seed packet, about twice as deep as the seed is thick is a usually a good approach.
  3. Poke your seed in, or lay it on top and cover with soil.
  4. Put your pot in a sunny location - could be a window, could be outdoors if it’s above freezing
  5. Water it - not too much and not too little! The best way to water the right amount is to stick your finger into the soil up to the first knuckle. If the soil feels dry, give your plant some water. If the soil feels wet or damp, don’t water it!
  6. If you like, transplant into a bigger pot or outside once it has several leaves

What else?

Watch it. Measure it. Draw it. Write about it. Tell your friends about it. Once it grows enough, if it’s edible, eat it!


Hike of the Week

Westwoods Loop

Each week we share a family-friendly hike or outdoor adventure. Click here to explore caves and marshes at Westwoods in Guilford!


Big picture


Weekly Video

Skunk Cabbage 2.0 - Now with flies!


About this series

Our programs for children at Common Ground are place based, hands on, and focus on community, friendship, and nature-based learning and play.

In this time of virtual learning and social distancing, we seek to support teachers and families in getting outside in safe and healthy ways. We hope this series provides content and activities to help your students or your family engage in nature-based learning, whether you are learning in person or virtually.

Some of the funding we rely on to keep Nature Notes free comes from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation and The Claire C. Bennitt Watershed Fund, established by the South Central CT Regional Water Authority.