Skunk cabbage heats up to herald spring

It's a hot topic as it melts through to spring

Crocuses? Yes, we welcome them and love watching the bees doing the same happy dance in the pollen that we're doing as we rediscover the garden.

It's wonderful just to think that many early flowers, including crocuses, pasqueflowers, magnolias and a lot of tiny alpines, create a warm space within their petals through tricks of cup shape and reflectivity, or actual thermogenesis. (We like to call it heavy breathing, since the process involves rapid cell respiration.) Perhaps the bees really are reveling.

Yet when we think of spring's glorious return, it's skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) that comes first to our minds. It emerges even before warmth returns, creating heat by rapidly metabolizing starches and releasing oxygen. Put your finger into the red-brown peaked cap and touch the club-like, sheltered flower -- it's giving off more heat than a canary or gerbil, enough to literally melt its way through the ice of a woodsy wetland to offer its hooded, petalless flower to the insects during late winter.

More gardeners with wet wooded areas should grow this plant. Its big leaves are beautiful. As for the smell its name implies, you'll probably notice it only when digging or dividing it.

Think we're goofy over a humble plant? We're just beginners compared to some!