“One sometimes finds what one isn’t looking for.” –Alexander Fleming
Lately, I’ve been hunting skunk cabbage. I’ve seen it around the marshy areas of the lakes and ponds, and I have it on good authority it should be in the swampy areas of the prairie wetlands where I’m a steward supervisor.
Unfortunately, I keep getting (forgive me) skunked. We’re updating our prairie plant inventory, and we know skunk cabbage was sighted here in 2005. But…where? And so, I keep walking the banks of Willoway Brook, brushing aside leaves, scouring the prairie wetlands. No luck.
I love this elusive plant. Although it can poke through the snow as early as December in the Chicago region, seeing it emerge always says “spring” to me.
Spring! It’s so close you can almost taste it. You can smell it in the air; feel it in the mud squishing under your hiking boots. March 20 is the vernal equinox—our astronomical spring. But for those of us ready to rush the season a little, Thursday, March 1, stands in as the official day of meteorological spring.
Astro-what? Meteorological? Huh?
There’s a great article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) about the difference here. A quick overview: meteorological spring—the March 1 kickoff—is a way for scientists to have consistent statistics from year to year, using the calendar months as a guide.
I like using this earlier start date. Just thinking it is officially “spring” improves my attitude. Spring! It’s here Thursday! Well, sort of. Signs of it are everywhere on this almost 50 degree day as I hike the tallgrass. The snowdrops are blooming nearby.
Out on the prairie, Willoway Brook runs free of ice and snow.
So what’s all the fuss about the other “spring” date? That sort of depressing, middle of March kick-off I mentioned? Why use it? Astronomical spring—based on the position of the Earth to the sun (that “vernal equinox”) means the days we count as the spring season will vary from year to year. Very simply put, an equinox means day and night are of the same duration, or equal. Astronomical seasons, based on the Earth and Sun’s positions, vary from 89-93 days long each year, NOAA tells us. So if you’re a scientist, it wreaks havoc on your comparison statistics to use the changeable astronomical seasons. Using the months of March, April, and May as “spring” for comparison from year to year makes more sense.
Of course there’s Leap Year, but hey! Let’s quit while we’re ahead and leave that explanation for another day.
The Latin “ver” means spring. But many scientists prefer the term “March equinox” as it is more globally universal.
Keep in mind that for my friends in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere, it makes no sense to say they have a vernal equinox, nor is March the beginning of their spring, as the seasons are the reverse of what we in the Northern Hemisphere experience.
Whew! Is your head spinning yet?
Mine is, a little.
Meanwhile, the calendar may say spring this week, but I’m still hunting skunk cabbage in the prairie wetlands. Maybe it has disappeared since our last prairie plant inventory. More likely, I’m just not looking attentively enough.
The bonus is, of course, that as I look for the missing skunk cabbage, I see a lot of other signs of spring on the way.
Which makes getting “skunked” so worth it.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), whose quote opens this post, was a brilliant Scottish scientist. After seeing many soldiers die from sepsis during World War 1, he researched the reason antiseptics (which were used to treat infection at the time) were ineffective. His untidy, cluttered lab led to penicillin’s accidental discovery. Fleming’s work is considered the beginning of modern antibiotics.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; acorn on ice, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Thanks to NOAA for the information on meteorological spring and astronomical spring.