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Thursday, March 22 Local

Column: Nature at Arm's Length

Snow drops and blue bells, tulips and violets; crocus and daffodils, clovers and tree buds; lily of the valley and skunk cabbage, too.

Skunk cabbage? Really?

You may have noticed on a walk through our wooded, marshy areas in Darien a small, dark maroon, cone-shaped "hood" poking up through the snow in late February, early March. This is the part of the skunk cabbage plant called the spathe that protects the flowering members inside. Temperatures inside this hood can reach 70 degrees, which allows it to melt the snow and ice around and above it.

As the plant grows, the spathe opens up to attract its pollinators to the flower. It truly is our first flower of spring, and you don't have to go to the woods to find skunk cabbage -- it thrives in moist, wetland areas along roadways, as well. Look for a medium height plant with large, wide, green leaves.

American Indians used the skunk cabbage plant for medicinal treatment. The only animal I've heard of that would actually eat the plant, in its young stage, is the bear. We can't eat skunk cabbage, even cooked, as the chemicals inside would cause a burning sensation in our mouths and throats. However, this is one wildflower from which no one will mind if you pick a leaf. It's particularly fun to pretend it smells delightful and let your kids take a whiff! It's this gassy, skunk-spray smell that attracts flies and carrion beetles to the spathe for pollination; animals that love to dine on rotting flesh.

Why am I reminded of two of my favorite Looney Tunes characters, Pepe Le Pew and his girlfriend, Flower? For the trivia minded: What kind of animals were they?

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Fact box

One of the most delightful seasons in which to walk through the woods at Cherry Lawn Park is spring. Right now, especially on a warm, sunny day, you can see three other types of native early bloomers. They are marsh marigolds, spring beauties and trout lilies, also known as adderstongues. The trout lily is so named because of the similarity of its mottled leaf markings to those on a brown or brook trout. A couple of other names for the shiny, yellow marsh marigold are cowslip and kingcup. The spring beauty is the delicate white flower with deep pink veins, the bulbs of which American Indians used to eat. See these flowers a few feet in from the beginning of the trail, starting at the nature center building, heading toward the pond.

Enjoy our collective backyard spring treats.

Nina Miller is a Darien resident.