Wrinkle your nose: Skunk cabbage is in bloom


The past several weeks, after a mild start, the weather turned quickly into a frightfully cold,
snow-filled winter.
March 1, as far as I am concerned, is the first day of spring. This is based on chronological events and
not our official calendar first day of spring March 20. One of the chronological events is the awakening
of skunks (M mephitis) emerging from their burrows and seeking mates to start their skunk family.
Another chronological event that shares a similar common name to skunks is the skunk cabbage
(Symplocarpus foetidus).
Skunk-cabbage is not a cabbage – not even close. It is closely related to a well-known wildflower that
will follow later in spring, the jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Skunk cabbage is a very
bizarre plant. When bruised, it produces an odor that will call to mind the musky, foul-smelling odor of
our black-and-white four-legged beasts. Skunk cabbage was used medicinally by Native Americans and in
the 19th century was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as the drug “dracontium,” an anti-inflammatory for
the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism and dropsy.
Skunk-cabbage is finicky about its haunts. The botanical stinkers grow in springy quagmires of swampy
woods. Investigators seeking a closer look can discover that good skunk-cabbage sites are carpeted with
boot-sucking, soupy muck with the texture of quicksand.
By late February and early March, the skunk-cabbage will be in full bloom in many areas. It takes effort
to admire the flowers, such as they are. Far more noticeable than the actual blossoms are the spotted,
fleshy purple and green spathes.
Spathes are a large bract that surrounds the flower cluster. Bracts are very familiar around Christmas.
The poinsettia is a plant that has bracts. The bracts are the large red leaves that encircle the
flowers. Spathes are very large bracts that encircle and somewhat encloses the flower. The calla lily
has a spathe that partly encloses the flower.
The skunk cabbage spathe is a spotted, hornlike, fleshy type of tent structures that shield and protect
the skunk-cabbage’s flowers. Enclosed within the spathe and visible through a gap – the tent flap – is a
columnar structure called a spadix. A spadix is minute, columnar flower, spikes closely arranged and
typically enclosed in a spathe. The surface of the spadix has a sprinkling of what looks like tiny,
greenish-yellow snowflakes. When you see this, you have found the true flowers of the skunk-cabbage.
How does skunk-cabbage beat other wildflowers to the punch? It blooms well before winter has abated,
often forcing its spathes through ice and snow. Basically, skunk-cabbage has a built-in furnace. Skunk
cabbage is one of just a few plants that exhibit thermogenesis, or the ability to metabolically generate
heat, by cyanide- resistant cellular respiration. Since it can bloom while there is still snow and ice
on the ground, the spadix can generate temperatures on average 40 degrees or more warmer than the
surrounding air temperature. Thus, the interior of the spathe is toasty warm and attracts early,
appearing flies and other small insect pollinators.
After skunk-cabbages’ flowers have mostly withered, the huge leaves emerge. A skunk-cabbage colony in
full leaf-out is a spectacle that cannot be missed.
Do a scratch and sniff on a leaf, and you will wrinkle your nose in disgust at the olfactory assault. No
one will garnish their salad with this stuff.

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