What to See in the Wissahickon
By Wendy Willard, Trail Ambassador and Crew Leader with Don Simon, Trail Ambassador
Skunk Cabbage (a.k.a. Polecat Weed)
Skunk cabbage is a late winter to early spring ephemeral, one of the first signs of spring in February to March. To look its best,
it needs mucky soil and sunlight before the deciduous trees leaf out. It goes dormant by early summer when the tree canopy closes in and the trees suck up most of the water.
Skunk cabbage looks similar to a large hosta with two-foot leaves on long petioles. As the leaves emerge, they unfurl in a spiral and have venation that puckers the surface. Its unusual maroon and yellow flowers consist of a fleshy spathe, shaped like a hood, covering a ball-shaped spadix.
The metabolism inside the spathe raises the temperature five degrees or more, melting any remaining snow around it. It also attracts early flies and beetles, which could mistake the foul smell and red flowers for a recently deceased mammal or bird. The early insects may gather pollen and affect pollination.
In the Wissahickon you can find skunk cabbage on the Orange Trail between the Mt. Airy Bridge and the Cresheim Creek.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (a.k.a. Indian Turnip)
Jack-in-the-pulpit is related to skunk cabbage with a curving, ridged hood (spathe or pulpit) around an erect club (spadix or Jack). Found in the moist woods, the flowers are designed to attract small flies, which crawl down the spadix and over the flowers, and thus pollinate them.
The long-stemmed leaves are in three parts, often streaked, above a warty sheath (tube). The flowers are protected by the spathe, which begins to dry and split as clusters of seeds swell inside. The scarlet fruits, looking like corn on the cob, appear in late summer.
Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found on the Yellow Trail going from Valley Green Inn toward Janette Street and along Forbidden Drive. Native Americans gathered and cooked the fleshy taproots, resulting in the common name, “Indian turnip.”
The design of the leaves of mayapples resembles an umbrella, which is efficient for collecting the weak spring light on the forest floor. The name refers to the blooming
flowers, which look like apple blossoms. The single, nodding flower is found in the crotch between a pair of large, deeply lobed leaves. The self-sterile flowers will occasionally get cross pollinated by bees and a yellow plum will result.
While the leaves, roots, and seeds are poisonous, the ripe golden fruit is edible and a favorite of box turtles. The plants have a history of medicinal use as an enema or for deworming. Recent research on derivatives has shown promise to selectively kill tumor cells.
Mayapples can be found in the Wissahickon on the Yellow Trail during–when else?–May!
Trout lilies are another spring ephemeral that takes advantage of the spring sun and then quickly goes dormant in the summer. These little spring bulbs produce a pair of brownish mottled leaves that cover the base of a stalk bearing a single nodding yellow flower.
The green, gray, and brown patterned leaves resemble the markings of a brook trout, and the season of bloom coincides with trout fishing season. Trout lily flowers remain closed at night and on overcast days, but when the sun appears the tepals (petals) recurve fully. The reflexed tepals of the flower look windswept, which Willliam Cullina in The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating describes “as if being held out the window of a moving automobile.”
Blister beetles and native bees collect the nectar and transport pollen on their lower surfaces. Resist the urge to dig them up and leave them in their native, moist woodland where they grow best. There is a large group of Trout lilies on the Orange Trail between Valley Green Road and the Cresheim Creek, just beyond the Mt. Airy Bridge on Forbidden Drive.
Wendy Willard is an FOW Crew Leader and Trail Ambassador, Horticulturist and Landscape Designer of Hort.Landscape. You can reach her at mhbMBH@aol.com