Monday, March 7, 2011

The Official Start to Spring

There is no finer way to ring in the new growing season each Spring for a botanist than to feast their eyes upon the year's first native blooming wildflower.  All the long days, weeks and months of winter seem to melt away in seconds upon the first glance of renewed green and growth making its way out of the thawing ground.  Despite winter's chill still clinging to the air and some snow on the ground I know my search will not be in vain to see the true harbinger of Spring on this cold and dreary day in late February.  Many of you can already guess who my friend is that I am speak so affectionately about and for those that can't may I introduce you to the appropriately named Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  The common name hails from early settlers who related the smell emitted from bruised or ripped foliage and crushed flowers to that of the the skunk.  This foul odor is what attracts its pollinators of carrion flies, stoneflies and bees to the plant.

Red Maple and Black Ash swamp forest

Each Spring around this time I make my annual pilgrimage to this Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) and Red Maple (Acer rubrum) swamp near my home in west-central Ohio to catch the red 'hoods' of the Skunk Cabbage peaking their tops above the water and muck to remind me the onslaught of Spring is not very far behind.  Heavy rains in the area the past week had caused severe flooding in many parts of the Miami River and Mad River valleys and I feared this swamp would be waterlogged and impassable.  Upon arrival I saw the water levels weren't much above normal and with a sigh of relief set out on my quest.

Skunk Cabbage blooms beginning to emerge

Almost immediately I was greeted by hundreds of what appear to be little gnome hats poking above the surface on the soil.  These 'gnome hats' are actually modified leaves called a Spathe, that twist around and enclose the plants actual flower.  The spathes have a rather fleshy feel to them and can vary in their shades of red and yellow.  They never open any further than seen above and in more detail below, leaving only a narrow slit in the side to allow the plants pollinators access to the spherical, round 'ball' of flowers inside.

Skunk Cabbage flowers

This round, so-called 'ball' of flowers in botanical terms is called a spadix.  To me it resembles the old sea mines you see in cartoons and movies; you know, those round steel balls covered in spikes chained to the ground underwater just waiting to come into contact with a ship?  Maybe not, but that's what comes to mind for me.  Looking closer inside you can see numerous, small specks covering the surface of the spadix.  These are the stamens and style which are packed with pollen just waiting for a visiting insect to pollinate.

Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage

One of the most fascinating things about this plant is its ability to create its own heat.  This is called Thermogenesis, which is a product of cell respiration that allows the plant and the air around it to be quite warmer than its surrounding environment.  This is a very unique trait only shared with small number of other plants and is what allows Skunk Cabbage to bloom so early in the season.  Even though many times the ground is still frozen when the plant decides to send forth its spathe, this self-created heat thaws the ground as it emerges and even melts any snow immediately surrounding the plant.  This heat not only helps the Skunk Cabbage break the soil but also aids in the attraction of pollinating insects.  If you were one of the earliest insects flying around the still chilly air of late February/early March wouldn't you want to find the warmest spot around? 

Mature leaves
Maturing fruit of the Skunk Cabbage

In the photographs above showing the flowering part of the Skunk Cabbage you will notice green 'spikes' arising alongside the spathe.  These are the leaves of the plant that stay tightly budded until mid-April when they will rapidly unfold to soak in the strengthening sunlight.  Photographed above on the left is a small patch of Skunk Cabbage in full leaf long after the flowering time of the plant.  Walking into a swamp or wet woodland in April and May covered in a sea of the very large leaves of the Skunk Cabbage is quite a sight.  Come June when the canopy of the forest is completely closed in, the leaves quickly begin to rot and dissolve away leaving only the swollen, matured spadix full of seeds as any evidence of the plant by late July and August.  The matured spadix, pictured above, strongly resembles a greyish/black human brain and looks like it would feel like one as well.

I always look forward to this first sign of Spring and anxiously await the opening of the floodgates of ephemeral wildflowers to soon follow!  Check back in frequently this Spring as I will be bringing you as much of the beauty as I can on this blog!  Thanks for reading!


  1. Hi A.L. I really like this post!!
    The color and the shape of this plant is so unique!!
    I like your reference to them looking like Gnomes...they have that fairy tale and mythical look!!
    Thanks for coming by my blog!!

  2. Thank you! Glad you repaid the visit and enjoyed the post!

  3. Alright, you have convinced me. I will head out in the morning to search for Skunk Cabbage

  4. Here at The Edge we have a few skunk cabbages someone planted along a creek in our Wilderness Preserve. For the past few years the deer have mutilated the plants, seemingly to eat them. This year when I visited a corm was even laying above ground apparently dug out by a deer??What's most fascinating is this plant, like others in the Arum Family, have calcium oxalate crystals in their flesh which are very pointy with a nasty chemical inside to repel would-be eaters. When eaten these crystals lodge in the throat and burn horribly. People can die from eating and having an allergic reaction (a nasty prank played by some with jack-in-the-pulpit, which could swell ones throat and kill them if they have an allergic reaction). How can deer eat this plant? Chris Bedel