Spring is in the air, along with skunk cabbage


March 1, as far as I am concerned, is the first day of spring in Wood County.

This is based on chronological events and not our official calendar first day of spring, which is March 20. One of the chronological events is the earlier awakening of skunks (M mephitis) emerging from their burrows and seeking mates to start their skunk family. We know that this has occurred with the increased skunk smell in the air and of course roadkill.

Another chronological event that is occurring and 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 has a musky, foul-smelling odor of our black-and-white four-legged beasts.

Skunk cabbage was used in the past as a medicinal drug by Native Americans. During the 19th century skunk cabbage was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as the drug “Dracontium.” This drug was used as 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 structure that shields 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 a minute, columnar flower, with 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. Skunk-cabbage has a built-in furnace. It 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 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. No one will garnish their salad with this stuff.

For those of us who might want to view this spectacle of a plant, it can be found growing happily at Bradner Preserve along the north side of the boardwalk between the parking lot and nature center. Bradner Preserve is one of our parks maintained by the Wood County Park District.

Not all mammals turn up their noses at skunk-cabbage.

Jim McCormac, with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, gives his theory about Ohio black bears. Emerging black bears arise from their Rip Van Winkle winter-long slumber and relish the smelly leaves. It may be that skunk cabbage leaves help the bear to break down the hard anal plug that kept the animal stopped up tight during its hibernation.

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