The First Wildflower of Spring is…Skunk Cabbage?

March comes in like a lion, the old saw says, but the last thing any of us needs right now is for March to roar in this; after the winter we’ve been through, we’re all completely exhausted by snow and ice. I’ll take a heaping helping of lamb instead, please, thank you very much.

And right now I’ll also take whatever sign of spring I can. Which explains why I ran outside last week when I heard the familiar honking of Canada geese overhead. I looked up, and there they were: two low-flying skeins of geese in beautiful V-formation flying exactly due north– avian compasses telling me spring is coming. 

In that same vein, desperately seeking spring, I hiked the Schuylkill Center’s Ravine Loop two Saturdays ago, slogging through the snow and ice in search of the very first wildflower of spring, which blooms right about now, amazingly.

It’s skunk cabbage, named for its large stinky leaves—that strong chemical keeps herbivores like deer at bay. Its leaves aren’t up yet—they come later—but I was looking for its flowers, as the plant blooms surprisingly early, as early as late February. And the flower is tucked inside a small mottled purple hood that resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, which means it is able to generate heat to melt the snow and ice around it. Temperatures around the hood are as much as 60° higher than the air around it. Crazy, no?

But that purple hood isn’t the flower. No, tucked inside the hood is a Sputnik-like knobby orb, rather Klingon-ish. Those knobs, unsexy as they are, are its flowers. And the flowers reek too, but a different smell, one akin to rotting flesh. This serves a huge purpose: attracting its pollinators, the flies and bees that scavenge on dead and rotting flesh. They crawl into the hood looking for dead meat, crawl over and across the yellow knobs, and accidentally pollinate the flower—a highly effective strategy. The purple mottling of its hood is surprisingly common in the pant world, as lots of plants have learned how to imitate dead flesh as a means of seduction.

And one of its pollinators is a blowfly with the wonderful species name of vomitoria. Need we say more?

Oh, the heat accomplishes multiple functions; it not only melts the ice around it, critical at this time of year, but also helps disseminate the smell. And pollinators are likely to come into the hood seeking the warmth that it generates. 

After blooming, its bright green leaves come up as well, some almost two feet long, their cabbage-like appearance lending the plant its name. 

As if all this were not cool enough, the plant’s stems remain buried below the surface, contracting as they grow, effectively pulling the stem deeper into the mud. In effect, it is an upside-down plant, the stem growing downward. As the plant grows, the stem burrows deeper, making older plants practically impossible to dig up. 

Sadly, I did not find skunk cabbage on that walk—I was just a little too early. So I’m going again this weekend, and invite you to do the trek yourself. Ask our receptionist for a Center map, and hike through the butterfly meadow, turning right and heading downhill on Ravine Loop. The loop makes a big left turn when it hits Smith Run, our lovely small stream, and it’s at that exact corner that you’ll see the skunk cabbage. Turn left to parallel the stream, then look on your left immediately for the wet, soggy, muddy spots—and the hoods will be interspersed in there. 

At that same corner and all along this stretch of the Ravine Loop, skunk cabbage will soon be joined by a raft of stunning flowers, the more traditional spring wildflowers with bold colors and big smells that look to entice the first butterflies and bees of spring. They’ve got sweet names too: spring beauty, Virginia bluebell, trout lily, trillium, Jack-in- the-pulpit, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal. Colorful names. And great sights for very winter-weary eyes.

They’re coming, I promise! But for now, come see the first flowers of the coming season. And happy almost-spring.


—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director


News Flash: Beavers in Roxborough!

One of the feel-good stories on the environmental scene is the rewilding of large cities like Philadelphia, where suddenly peregrine falcons nest in church steeples and on Delaware River bridges, bald eagles pull large fish out of the Schuylkill River, and coyotes amble down Domino Lane.

In that vein, members of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy were somewhat startled to discover that the restoration plantings they’ve doggedly placed along the Schuylkill River have been devoured by…beavers! Wait, beavers in Roxborough?

Once extirpated—a fancy word meaning locally extinct—across Pennsylvania, hunted because their fur was remarkably valuable and because we did not appreciate their ability to rearrange landscapes to their own ends. But beavers have been returning to our state over the last century, and have been seen along Tacony and Pennypack Creeks since about 2008. And now they have taken up residence in the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal around Flat Rock Dam.

“I first noticed beavers and their lodge in the winter of 2018,” observed Suzanne Hagner, Roxborough resident and member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy, “as I rode out the Schuylkill River Trail towards Shawmont. I could see where they had worn down a path into the woods on the far side of the trail and I guessed that was where they were going for food.” The lodge was near Flat Rock Dam, and they have been spotted—and photographed—as far down as Lock Street and as far up as past Shawmont Avenue, both in the canal and along the river.

“You can see their work from Lock to Cotton streets,” added Kay Sykora, another key Conservancy member, “particularly in the Cotton Street area; look for the damage on the banks and trees.” She offered that there was a “small dam in the wetlands near the upper locks” but that may have been damaged by heavy storms. Tom Landsmann, president of the Conservancy, offers that “the very best place to see the beaver or signs of the beaver’s visits is from the river. Take a kayak or paddle board and look for the damaged bark or the lodges. Look just above the flat rock dam on the Philly side, but on the Lower Merion side and up river as well. Can’t miss it.”

They famously cut down saplings and trees with their chisel-like teeth, building dams and lodges with the branches, chewing the inner bark of trees as their favored food source. That tree-cutting, of course, can sometimes interfere with our own good work.

“Beavers have good taste in trees,” Tom added, tongue in cheek. “They ate over 60 trees we planted along the canal last year. But we adjusted. Last spring, we painted the uneaten trees with latex paint mixed with a lot of sand,” the grit distasteful to the large rodents. “Many of the damaged trees grew out again this summer,” he continued. “We wrapped those trees in cages this fall. We installed 130 cages along the canal near both sides of Fountain Street.”

Bernard “Billy” Brown, author of Grid magazine’s Urban Naturalist column, told me that, in addition to the cages, Riverfront North, a group doing restoration work along Pennypack Creek, “has planted species that can rebound well after being cut down by beavers, like willow species in particular.”

The Conservancy recently hosted a walk-through of the area with a self-described “beaver believer” they brought in from central PA, and their takeaway was similar. “The other approach which I believe we will have to do,” continued Kay, “is to rethink our plantings. We need to put in more herbaceous plants on the impacted banks and see if we can add things like willows to the upper wetland areas to keep them in that area, which is better suited for them and for us.”

Suzanne Hagner agrees. “There are plants, several species of low growing willow that beavers eat that we can plant and hopefully, if we get them planted soon, we can entice the beavers to move further out the trail” and away from their restoration plantings.

Billy Brown has been writing about the beaver’s return to Philadelphia for a while now. “As a reaction, I’ll say that beavers and their return to Philadelphia show the importance of waterways in connecting urban habitat with the surrounding landscape. I think most people under-appreciate how severely our system of roads isolates habitat, an issue the Schuylkill Center contends with the Toad Detour project, for example. Waterways and the green corridors around them are exceptions to the fragmentation of habitat in urban landscapes. The ability of beavers to quickly disperse through the city shows that. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how different our urban ecosystems would be if we could more broady connect to the surrounding landscape.”

Suzanne Hagner has been reading up on beaver, passing books along to Conservancy members. “They are amazingly skilled at creating waterways and irrigation systems that lead to ecological health,” she said. “Our consultant offered that the return of the beavers was a very good sign in our area, as the beaver is an ecological system in itself. I had lived in Washington state, and had heard that beavers were being reintroduced in eastern Washington to help curb the arid areas that are prone to wildfires.”

“The return of the beaver,” notes Kay Sykora, “along with a wide range of wildlife like herons and turtles underscores the health of our river area, once one of the most damaged and polluted rivers in the country. Beaver were virtually trapped out of existence for their fur, and there was no understanding of the role they played in the environmental balance of nature. They are key to the health of our wetland areas and the range of wildlife that needs those areas to survive.”

Go for a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, and find for yourself the pointed chiseled ends of tree trunks along the canal and river. It’s evidence of Roxborough’s newest neighbor, the beaver.


—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Photo/Video by Linda Lee McGinnis

Something Special in our Nature Gift Shop

There’s a special joy in giving someone just the right gift, one that makes their eyes light up with excitement. But finding that something can be tricky—so we’re here to make it easy for you. Nestled in a corner of our Visitor Center, our Nature Gift Shop is replete with eco-friendly, locally-made, and nature-themed items, from books to bird houses, earrings to mugs, puzzles to (recycled!) plushies.

FOR THE EXPLORER: The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook

This family-friendly book offers numerous delightful outdoor activities, explorations, and crafts. It’s great for injecting new life into tired pandemic routines (has anyone else done the same walk hundreds of times by now?) and for when you need that extra push outside in the cold weather.

FOR THE WRITER: Decomposition Notebooks

The perfect eco-friendly replacements for your classic composition books, these are made with 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper and printed with soy ink. Plus they feature gorgeous nature-inspired designs and spiral binding. Win-win-win-win-win.

FOR THE FOODIE: World O’ Honey’s Raw Local Chunk Honey

Honey doesn’t get better than the raw, local (Silverdale, PA in this case) variety, and the honeycomb adds a delicious crunch. If smooth is more your thing, never fear—we stock a number of other varieties such as creamed, blueberry, orange blossom…yum.


FOR THE CHEF: Bee’s Wrap Food Wraps

Bid farewell to plastic wrap forever and invest in a few Bee’s Wraps reusable food wraps. They come in a variety of sizes and patterns and are made with four simple ingredients: organic cotton, Beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin. A beautiful eco-friendly kitchen swap.


This pocket-sized guide is convenient for walks in the woods, and its clear illustrations of leaves provide just enough detail to identify a whole host of trees. There’s also a Winter Tree edition, great for when leaves are, well, a little harder to find.


Our Nature Gift Shop is a birder’s paradise, bursting with houses, feeders and guides. But it’s our birdseed that gets folks coming back over and over, so a nice big bag would be perfect for any birder in your life.

FOR THE WELLNESS GEEK: The Nature Principle

In his second book, Richard Louv shifts his focus from kids to adults and furthers his passionate argument for nature as the key to wellness, productivity, creativity, and community. It’s sure to convince even the most dedicated indoors person to venture outside, and to reinspire outdoors enthusiasts.


Not only do memberships help sustain the Schuylkill Center’s programming, they also create and connect an enthusiastic community. There are some great perks, too: discounted tickets to our public events, a subscription to our quarterly newsletter, and 20% off Gift Shop purchases among them.


For more gift ideas, follow us on Instagram, or stop by the shop yourself (just wear a mask!), open Monday–Saturday, 9 am. – 4:30 pm. Our Gift Shop manager, Michelle, is also assiduously working to get all of our stock listed online; keep checking back for more. Call 215-482-7300 with any questions, and order online and conveniently arrange for curbside pickup. Happy holidays!


— By Emily Sorensen, Communications Intern 


Family Camping

While spending time in nature helps us to unplug and rejuvenate, finding the time to do so while surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city can often be a challenge. If you’re looking to get away, there are great spots around Philadelphia to relax and refresh with the family. In addition to checking out these great spots, make sure to join us June 23–24 for the 14th annual Great American Backyard Campout, which is held in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation. Spend the night under the stars, hike through the forest, and tell stories around the campfire… all while within city limits. Call 215-482-7300 x 137 to register. Check out these amazing spots within a short drive of city limits.

French Creek State Park (1 hour 10 minutes)
Located in Berks and Chester counties, French Creek State Park is the largest block of continuous forest located between New York City and Washington, D.C. Its options for sleeping arrangementseverything from cabins to cottages to yurts to traditional tentsmake it a great spot for both experienced and beginning campers alike.

Ricketts Glen State Park (2 hours 30 minutes)

Ricketts Glen is home to the Glens Natural Areaa National Natural Landmark. The park has 26 miles of trails. The most popular is the Falls Trail (a 7.2 mile loop), where visitors can view 21 waterfalls. There are shorter trail options with waterfall vistas as well.

Cape Henlopen State Park (2 hours 15 minutes)

Cape Henlopen offers a variety of recreational options. Climb to the top of the World War II observation tower, take the Seaside or Pinelands nature trails to explore coastal habitats, enjoy a game of disc golf, or spend the day relaxing on the beach.

Wharton State Forest (45 minutes)
Nestled within the Pine Barrens, the Atsion Recreation Area is at the heart of the forest. Named after the Atsion Mansion, the recreation area is situated on a 100-acre lake perfect for kayaking and canoeing.




Four Black-led Initiatives Nourishing a Greener Philadelphia

Happy Black History Month! This February, we’ve been honoring Black leaders in the environmental movement.

Here are four of the many Philadelphia-based environmental initiatives led by Black educators, healers, scientists and activists you can support not just this month, but all year round.

Continue reading

headphones with nature

End of Summer Podcast Round-Up

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

It’s been a summer of good listening and I wanted to share a few nature and science podcasts we listened to this summer that offered new insights, entertained us, and opened our eyes. Whether you’re a serious nature nerd, somebody who likes a good science podcast, or someone looking for a thoughtful take on the everyday world, there is something here to mull on.  Happy listening!

Radiolab logoRadiolab
From Tree to Shining Tree, July 30, 2016

“It’s as if the individual trees were somehow thinking ahead to the needs of the whole forest.”

In this Radiolab Podcast Short, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich go into the root systems of the forest, revealing the hidden world beneath the trees, and the strange, and sometimes inexplicable, activities of the trees.

Listen here.
35 minutes long.

Code Switch logoCode Switch
Made for You and Me, June 8, 2016

“What I have learned over years is that the natural story is connected to our cultural story and that national parks are actually a really incredible way to get both in one place.”

The NPR Code Switch team celebrated the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service by jumping into stereotypes and truths about people of color and the great outdoors.

Listen here.
20 minutes.

99 percent invisible logo99% Invisible
Unseen City: Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, April 26, 2016

“[Reading from book] ‘Ginko toxin is similar in structure to vitamin B6, and eating too much of it interferes with our ability to synthesize the vitamin.  That can provoke a biochemical cascaded that, especially in children, may lead to seizures and even death. This sounds alarming, but it wasn’t enough to deter me.’

 What does deter you from eating things?”

99% Invisible host Roman Mars interviews Nathanael Johnson about his recent book, Unseen City, chatting about the noble origins of the pigeon and Johnson’s adventures foraging in the city.

Listen here.
30 minutes.

hiddenbrainHidden Brain
Episode 27: Losing Alaska, April 19, 2016

“I realized at that moment that the debate over climate change is no longer really about science, unless the science you are talking about is human behavior.”

Shankar Vedantam’s Losing Alaska episode of his NPR Hidden Brain podcast offers a poignant view of our vanishing glaciers and why it is that we simply don’t act on climate change.

Listen here (scroll down to Episode 27).
25 minutes.

Searching for the Delaware Valley’s Green Giants

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, @SCEEMike 

Almost 50 years after her too-soon death from cancer, Rachel Carson still inspires the environmental community.  Pennsylvania’s gift to environmental thinking, Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring jumpstarted the modern environmental movement—and every green book published since has been compared (unfavorably) to it.

In fact, she casts such a long shadow that most environmental centers still talk about programming that “produces the next Rachel Carson.”  That is our highest goal; she is our Holy Grail.

Every year, the Schuylkill Center honors an environmental leader with our Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award, named for one of our founders, a delightful gentlemen who, just after Silent Spring came out, envisioned a nature center on these hundreds of acres—and shepherded the organization through its growth pains over the next 30 years as a board member.

Without Henry, odds are high we would not exist.  Continue reading

Earth Day: Become 1 of the 1 Billion Participants

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This Friday, April 22, marks the return of Earth Day—and check this out—on that day, estimates are that one billion people from 200 nations will mark the day.  Earth Day has quietly emerged as the largest secular holiday worldwide with the exception of New Year’s Day.

And this year’s edition will be even more newsworthy, as many countries will begin signing the groundbreaking Paris climate change treaty that day at the UN in New York.

As big as it is, Philadelphia played a key role in Earth Day’s birth. Continue reading

The Water Crisis in Flint Focuses Attention on Lead Poisoning Here

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The unfolding tragedy of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has riveted the world’s attention on the issue, and even as I write this last Friday, the story continues to evolve, as hundreds of Michiganders were then marching on the statehouse demanding that Governor Rick Snyder resign.

And it makes all of us think twice before we turn on our own taps. Continue reading


The Hidden History of Groundhog Day

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

At 7:25 This morning, a portly aging man in top hat and tails unceremoniously yanked a grumpy groundhog from his winter den and presented it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands.  The man whispered to the groundhog in their secret, shared language, what he calls “Groundhogese”…

And, for the 130th year since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent this side of a certain mouse named Mickey, predicted the weather.

Happy Groundhog Day.  With today’s temperatures soaring into the 50s and tomorrow’s into the 60s, Phil did not see his shadow—no surprise there—predicting an early spring. (But remember, the National Climatic Data Center calculated that Phil only gets his predictions right 39% of the time, worse than a coin flip.)

As a naturalist, I love a holiday named for an animal, and I’m tickled that the national media just might have made room amongst that day’s Iowa caucus results to squeeze this story in.

And I love that it’s based in some natural history.  Groundhogs—also called woodchucks—are in fact hibernators, sleeping the entire winter away in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from summer’s 80 beats per minute to winter’s five.  In February, males arouse themselves from this slumber to scout their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates.  Finished scouting, they go back to sleep for another month or so.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settling in the New World brought their German tradition of seeking out a hibernating animal—for them it was badgers, while Brits used hedgehogs—on February 2 for weather prognostications.  Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming in February likely began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

But the choice of February 2 is no accident.  Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day when clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the dark of winter, and lighted candles were placed in windows.  Candlemas comes at the exact mid-point between winter solstice and spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was fair this day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. “If Candlemas be fair and bright,” said the superstition, “winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”

Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of four cross-quarter days, the halfway marks of seasons.  Echoes of ancient cross-quarter holidays have stayed with us through the ages in May Day, Halloween, and Groundhog Day.

Today, we are halfway through winter, as farmers used to remind themselves by repeating the adage, “Groundhog Day, half your hay.”  Pace yourself; make sure you’ve got enough for winter’s second half.

Seems there was a long-ago tug of war over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where cross-quarter days begin them, the other where solstices and equinoxes do.  Midsummer’s Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so wonderfully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer.  But way back when, the solstice was the midway point of the season.

Portions of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA.  When that top-hatted gentleman pulled Phil out of his burrow up there on Gobbler’s Knob, he reminded us of olden days when a completely different calendar ruled—and today is suddenly Imbolc, the very first day of Spring.

And let’s be honest: he had better chances of getting his prediction right than Martin O’Malley did of winning Iowa.  Paws down.

Image: Jeffrey Kontur