the sound of crucifers

Wilson Kerr lives in Concord and is an avid outdoorsman and amateur naturalist. This column is designed to help raise awareness of the wonders of nature. In this increasingly fast-paced and technology-filled world, it is important to stop and admire the beauty of our region and the animals that inhabit it. The author hopes that this recurring column will be read by families and used as an educational tool and that you will spend more time outdoors.

Minutemen will soon be gathering for Patriot’s Day, the Boston Marathon route is marked out, football practice has begun and the canoes are being repainted at Fenway! Spring in New England!

In the woods, the signs of spring are also unmistakable, as nature awakens from a long slumber. Henry David Thoreau observed them during his walks around Concord and during his stay at Walden Pond. For thousands of years before him, Native Americans saw them too and knew their meaning. For me, this continuity makes these natural, seasonal milestones more exciting than any man-made event.

Before I share my two favorites, let’s take a look at what actually causes the season we call “spring.” Simply put, the earth heats up when its tilted axis begins to allow the sun’s rays to hit the northern hemisphere more directly, as it orbits the sun every 365 days. Search it on Google!

As the weather warms and the natural world comes alive, the sound of spring peepers is the one I most look forward to. It’s only when I hear them that I know winter has finally released its icy grip.

Sometimes called pinkletinks, these tiny forest frogs are quite something! For starters, the peepers have a natural antifreeze in their blood that allows them to freeze almost solidly in their winter hideouts among the leaves! After literally thawing out, the voyeurs move to a nearby body of water to meet other voyeurs.

Peepers are a species of “chorus frog” and are brownish in color and usually only about an inch in length. They have a range in the eastern United States from Florida to Canada. If you can spot one, you’ll see a distinctive camouflage X pattern on its back. This inspired their Latin name Pseudacris Crucifer, which means “cross bearer”.

Once temperatures reach the 40s and 50s, as their name suggests, the males will pop a sac under their chin and make a loud, repeated “PEEP” sound to attract a mate. Females do not squawk. For their size, they are one of the loudest animals on the planet and their cries can be heard half a mile away!

Because they instinctively hide in crevices or under leaves, peeps can be very difficult to spot, as the sound bounces around, creating a ventriloquist effect. In fact, most people have never seen a voyeur, even if they have been very close to one.

Male crucifers pop a sac under their chin and make a loud, repeated

Peepers live 3-4 years, and to avoid being found by predators, they only peek at dusk for a few weeks in the spring. Once they find a mate, the males stop calling.

After mating, females lay up to 1000 eggs in the water, which then hatch into tiny tadpoles. Two to four months later, they sprout legs and crawl out of the water to live on land like frogs. Like all amphibians, they live part of their lives underwater breathing like a fish and part above breathing air.

During the summer, they move away from water and hunt small insects on the ground in the woods. When the winter cold sets in again, they find a hiding place and nearly freeze until the cycle repeats!

Skunk cabbage blooms as early as February in Massachusetts.

For me, a runner up for hearing springtime crucifers is the sight of skunk cabbage springing up. These native plants grow in moist, boggy soil and are usually one of the first glimpses of the green color I see each spring. They almost look like aliens growing out of the ground, with a mottled appearance of green and purple on their folded leaves.

The reason why these plants are the first to appear in the spring is truly amazing. You see, they are one of the few thermogenic plants on earth. Skunk cabbage uses a process of cellular respiration to heat themselves 60 to 90 degrees warmer than the surrounding air and this heat melts frozen ground, allowing them to sprout before other plants! This first means cracking up in the sun as their large green leaves unfurl.

A visit to Concord’s Gaining Ground to learn about maple syrup production in New England

As their name suggests, they have another unique trait. They stink! The pungent smell is harmless, but reminiscent of the smell of a skunk and rotting meat. Animals that might eat their leaves are put off, and their stinky flowers attract insects looking for the source of the rotting smell. These insects pollinate plants, allowing them to create seeds. Those seeds, of course, mean more skunk cabbage next year!

Skunk cabbage was widely used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and the young leaves, when dried, impart a peppery flavor to soups and stews. Look for them wherever you find water and maybe break off a small piece of a leaf and sniff it!

Alice Lehmann of Concord creates a bouquet of zinnia and cosmos flowers at Barrett's Mill Farm on Friday September 11, 2020.

Thoreau was also fond of skunk cabbage, and in his book, ‘Thoreau’s Wildflowers’, he wrote: “As the ice melts in the swamps, I see the horn-shaped buds of skunk cabbage, green with a bluish bloom, upright unscathed, ready to feel the influence of the sun.The most prepared for spring—to watch—of all plants.

Although our woods and meadows offer many other signs of spring at this time of year, spring crucifers and skunk cabbage are my two favorites. I hope you and your family have learned a little more about them.

Maybe you have your own, like robins picking worms, wood frogs looking like feeding ducks in vernal pools, the various calls of songbirds as they search for mates, a new fawn spotted with a mother doe, or the early morning spring goblet of a wild turkey.

Either way, open your senses to nature’s cues that the hot summer is coming! Be as observant as Thoreau was when exploring with your family, while spending more… time outdoors. Peep, peep