What You Can See on Feb. 1
Submitted by Ted Williams on Wed, 02/01/2006 - 11:05.
From Audubon’s Earth Almanac by Ted Williams and compiled in “Wild Moments,” edited by Connie Isbell, Illustrations by John Burgoyne, Storey Publishing, 174 pages. A Plant that Melts Snow The stench of skunk cabbage is designed to attract, not repel. Pollinators such as carrion flies find it irresistible. In late winter the plant generates sufficient heat -- about 72 degrees Fahrenheit -- to thaw the ground. It does this through an oxygen-consuming metabolism that has inspired one scientist to comment that skunk cabbages behave “more like skunks than cabbages.” With the first suggestion of spring, when crocuses are still underground and red-winged blackbirds hunker below the Mason-Dixon line, look for the purple, streaked hoods of skunk cabbage burning up through an ice-bound swamp. These hoods house a flower that would die without the heat. In April, spring peepers will hide in them. In May, common yellowthroats will nest in them. In high summer waterlily beetles will graze on the plant's three-foot long leaves. In autumn grouse, quail, pheasants and wood ducks will gorge on the seeds. Humans eat skunk cabbage, too. Properly cooked, roots and new leaves are delicious; improperly cooked, they will blister your throat. Skunk cabbage has even been prescribed for asthma, whooping cough, rheumatism, toothache, hysteria, dropsy, epilepsy, birth control and the inducement of labor -- though not recently. Rodent Subways Beneath the snow there is revelry undreamt of by the two-legged giants who trudge through what they call the "dead of winter." Safe at last from the 24-hour hawk-owl patrol, the chubby-faced, round-eared meadow voles -- a.k.a. "field mice" -- scamper on stubby legs through a maze of snow tunnels, stopping to greet each other; to preen their long, loose fur; or to feast on roots, bulbs, and grass. In most of the nation they are the basalt that anchors countless food chains, breeding year-round and pumping out as many as nine young in 21-day gestation periods. Look for their collapsed tunnels when snowpacks slump under sun or rain.