Skunk Cabbage Up, Barn Down


Now that we’ve had a few days above freezing and no new snow storms for about ten days, the ground can finally be seen again afters many months under a foot of snow.  Just a week, or so, ago the scene above was a snowy one .. it’s now finally starting to feel like spring.


The ravines are running with snow melt, and entering the floodplains:


Vernal ponds fill with water, creating temporary breeding grounds for a variety of wildlife, both seen and unseen.  The cycle of life goes on.  This process has been going on for many thousands of years – since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, forming what we see today – an oak woods, wetlands, and a peaceful creek:


The creek is running high at this time of year and things are slowly starting to green up.  In the recent past, beaver have made their homes here.  Some of their handy work (damage) can still be seen on some of the trees near the creek:


Beaver damage showing on an old White Oak

Reaching  the creek, the snow is still holding fast, but losing ground as the temperature rises into the low 50’s today.


  As the snow melts, the plants start coming out of their winter dormancy:


Finally, I’m rewarded with one of nature’s first signs of spring – the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage:


Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is part of the opening ceremony of the eternal spring cycle events.  These hooded flowers waited underground all winter, forming as their leaves faded the previous fall, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary: “They see over the brow of Winter’s hill.  They see another summer ahead.”

This small colony of Skunk Cabbage has been making its appearance here for many thousands of years every spring – these jewels of nature can not be found in store windows or at garden shows, they are more precious than that.


The Skunk Cabbage gets its name from the acrid smell of its large, cabbage-like, leaves when bruised.   To me, they smell less like skunk, and more like burnt rubber.  The flower itself, which has the coloration of raw flesh,  is said to give off the odor of rotting meat – all the better to attract pollinators, which include flies, beetles, as well as bees. 

The  hooded flowers indicate that the plant is in the arum family, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and Green Dragon (A. dracontium) its woodland neighbors, rather than the cabbage family, as its name might indicate.  The leaves taste as bad as they smell and cause a burning sensation on the tongue and throat (oxalic crystals?) when eaten, as Euell Gibbons explains in his book “Stalking the Healthful Herbs.”  He was, however, able to make a flour out of the coarse roots, from which he made pancakes that were “something special,” tasting “a bit like cocoa but different.”


The flowers have been found to produce their own heat, a process known as thermogenesis, by biologist  Roger Seymour (Scientific American, March 1997.)  He found the temperatures inside the hood of the flower structure to be as much as 30° F warmer than the surrounding air, even at night.  This would help to explain the rings of melted snow sometimes found around the emerging plants:


While many of the upland parts of the woods were snow-free, the low mucky seeps where the Skunk Cabbage grows was still snow covered.  The useful advantage of this plant to produce its own heat is thus made clear.



A few other plants, including the Hepatica shown below, were also showing green leaves, these leaves, however, were survivors from last season.  Their semi-evergreen leaves help collect energy for these early bloomers, which should be in flower in about three weeks, after flowering, it will send up its new leaves for the season.  The dainty little flowers are in shades of pink, blue, and white – each flower lasting only a day.


Last year’s Hepatica leaves catching the early spring rays of the sun

The Blue Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), also a semi-evergreen, will show off its sky blue flowers in a month, or so – when the daffodils are in bloom, but right now, its snow flattened leaves will help the plant make a quick spring recovery before the oaks leaf out and take away the sun.


The leaves of Blue Wood Phlox

Lichens and moss, love the wet, cool spring weather.


A happy lichen showing off its amazing coloration




The Woodland Onion (Allium canadense) was already popping up in the sandy floodplain:


While other plants, including the tree shown below, were at the end of their life cycle, no longer greeting the spring with new leaves, but rather through their decay, creating habitat for other organisms, including moss, fungi, and salamanders.




This old Bur Oak  (Quercus macrocarpa) was still standing tall however, a full five feet across at its base – a true survivor, greeting many springs before the nearby farmstead came to be established, and since then, somehow escaping the blows of a axe.


Other oaks, both White Oaks and Red Oaks kept it company nearby:



While acorns from one of the Red Oaks were hopeful of their place in the woodland landscape:


Red Oak acorns beginning to sprout, the start of a mighty oak begins here

I followed the deer path out of the woods and into the farm field.


When in doubt, follow the deer path

Passing the home of a Hobbit on the way:


When I emerged from the woods, I was disoriented, where was the farmstead?  Admittedly, there wasn’t much left to begin with, the farm house was long gone, and the barn was burnt down by the forest preserve ten years ago, but where were the grain silos?  Every last bit of the farmstead was scraped away this past winter.  My heart sunk a bit at the sight of it.


No more barn, no more silos.

Twenty five years ago this private farmland, established by the Rincker family in the 19th century, was purchased by the Will County Forest Preserve.  I took the photo of the old barn shortly afterwards.


barn composite spsm

It always makes me a bit sad to see old farm buildings rot away, a Morton Pole Barn is no replacement for an old wooden barn made of White Pine beams and rubblestone foundations.  At least I was able to explore this barn, and admire its construction, and imagine the proud farmer that built it when it still stood.  Climbing its rafters, I came across some old graffiti carved into one of the beams “O. Fricke ’90” – someone, a child? a laborer? had carved their name there back in 1890 – it was a bit surreal to sit there one hundred years later in the same place and think about the carver.  One year, owls nested in the barn, and I was able to see the fluffy football sized nestlings high up in their box – was it an old owl nesting box put there in the gable by the farmer many years ago?  I don’t know.

All that is left of the old barn now is a few bricks that made up part of the foundation, a few photos I took of it about 25 years ago, and my fond memories of it while I played “farm kid.”


Bricks once firmly laid to support the sill of the barn

The farmer was a frugal one, as most were, Yankees have nothing on Midwesterners when is comes to frugality, on one of the window sills was a rat-tail file with its tang stuck into a corncob handle – brilliant!  It had been sitting there a very long time, as I touched it, the corn cob disintegrated in my hand.   One of the animal stall doors had hinges that were quite ornate and made of brass, on closer inspection, I could see that they had come off of an old ice box – awesome!   The only remaining indication that this was once the home of farm animals is the old water trough in the pasture – a repurposed mid-century cast iron bathtub.   Farmers knew a thing or two about sustainability – but they just considered it common sense, I’m sure.  It was a great barn at one time, but neglected long before the county bought the property – a shame.


Spring bath anyone?

The concrete cover over the old brick-lined cistern was scraped away, by the contractors that cleared the site, and the hole partly filled in.  When the cistern was still intact, it would take about three seconds for a pebble dropped through a hole in the concrete cover to hit water – it always hit water, it was deep.


The old cistern exposed

I would love to know where the bricks were made that line the cistern.  There were brick foundries in the area at one time.  Were they made locally?  I imagine that they were.


Even when I was a kid, the old farmhouse was long gone, and in its place was a mobile home.  Apparently, the mobile home used the same well that the farmhouse did, as evidenced by the photo below, showing the inside corner of the farmhouse’s limestone foundation and the water holding tank from the well – at one time, this area was protected by a sheet of plywood.


All in all, a rather interesting spring walk to be sure.  In nature, as in life, things come, things go, spring has come and the old Bur Oak still stands.

Share Button

Connor Shaw Presents at the Will County Forest Preserve Native Plant Sale

ed under tent 178 sm

Midwest native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses were available at the plant sale.


ed bap n tents 208 sm

The landscape beds around the district headquarters contained an interesting mix of prairie plants and trees. Shown here are Baptisia australis, or Blue Prairie Indigo, in flower


Connor Shaw gave an informal presentation at this spring’s inaugural Will County Forest Preserve’s native plant sale on June 1st, 2013.  Owner of Possibility Place Nursery, in Monee, Illinois, Connor grows Midwest native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses.

In his presentation, Connor touched on how to properly plant a tree, the best time(s) to plant, and how to care for the tree after planting.

For field grown trees, otherwise known as balled and burlapped (or, B&B), he suggested that the best time to plant is early spring (March and April) or after the month of July, up until the ground freezes solid in the fall.  Connor also stated that “August is the best time to plant anything, roots can grow 24 inches by the first freeze.”  Evergreens were the exception: “Plant those in July, the candles (new branch growth) are grown out by then.”


ed Connor Shaw sm

Connor Shaw, with a young oak from his nursery set on the table behind him. Note the shape of the pot. These stepped pots with small, 5/64″ holes along the ridges help to prevent circling roots.

When setting a tree in the ground, and determining how deep of a hole to dig, Connor explained that the root flare, literally where the roots flare away from the base of the tree trunk, should be visible after planting and elevated one to two inches above the surrounding soil level, or up to six inches above the surrounding soil, in areas that become inundated for 24 hours, or more, after a rain storm.

Connor expressed that, if planting more than one tree, the spacing between trees can vary from one foot to 25 feet or more.  Multiple trees can be planted in the same planting hole to form a “clump” or multi-stemmed tree. 

Overhead obstructions, including power lines need to be noted and the mature spread of a tree’s crown should be taken into account, when determining a planting location.

Holding a #5 pot (a pot which holds approximately five gallons of soil), containing a three foot tall Bur Oak, Connor explained how choosing to plant that young oak is most often a better choice for homeowners, than a tree three times its size.  Simply stated, larger trees require a longer period of after care.  As a general rule, it takes a tree one year to reestablish its root system for every inch of trunk caliper.  Therefore, a tree with a three inch caliper is going to require hand watering  once a week for three growing seasons, for any week that there is less than one inch of rainfall.  So that young Bur Oak will only need to be hand watered during its first summer. Or, Connor assured the audience, if the oak in the #5 pot is planted between September 15th and October 15th, it can be watered once at planting time, then forgotten, as far as hand watering goes.

An oak, once established, will typically grow two feet a year, in Connor’s experience.  I commonly have observed oaks that have grown as much as that and more in a season.  Oaks tend to push out new growth throughout the summer, as long as they are happy.  Connor noted, that while the larger caliper oak will be occupied with establishing its root system for several years (since most of its roots were lost, when it was dug from the field), the container grown oak (which had 100% percent of its roots from day one) will soon surpass it in height within three or four years.  Planting smaller trees is definitely the way to go, at least in a home landscape.  A street parkway, or other high pedestrian traffic public space may require that larger trees be installed due to other considerations

Red Oak Growth sm

A young oak (in my backyard) shows the amount of growth possible in just a three year period. Also note the trunk girth at the soil line in the current picture, compared to 2010. Leaving the lower branches on the tree also allows for faster growth, overall.

Finally Conner noted the importance of applying wood mulch, a few inches deep, around newly planted trees.  This helps to keep moisture in the soil and weed growth down, reducing the chance of mower or weed trimmer damage to the delicate bark.  The mulch should most definitely not be built up to form a “volcano” around the base of the tree, and in fact, it should be kept from coming into contact with the bark of the tree.  In addition, he strongly suggested protecting the trunks of newly planted trees with chicken wire to keep gnawing animals at bay, including beaver, explaining how he lost several newly planted River Birch, the first night after planting, to these critters.  To add to that, I would (and do) surround any young tree with four foot high wire fencing where deer are present and would likely eat the tree buds in winter and new spring growth.  Deer also seem to like to rub their antlers on the trunks of young trees, doing a great deal of damage in the process by way of girdling the tree and ripping off branches.  This wire fencing will protect the tree from this damage.

Connor’s  years of experience in growing a wide variety of plants was in evidence as he offered insight on what to pay attention to when planting trees, how best to approach the idea, and finally how a little care and protection goes a long way to getting the trees on a good start to a long life of providing shade, beauty, and habitat for wildlife.



Share Button