Common name skunk cabbage
by Scott LaFleur
The smell of spring is heating up
It may feel as though we are frozen in time and tucked in under nature's big white blanket. However, if you peek your head out of the covers and look a mere nine weeks into the future you can see it - the botanical world’s hooded messenger of spring, Symplocarpus foetidus, the common skunk cabbage.
This underappreciated yet remarkable plant is strikingly beautiful. The maroon mottled hood is actually a modified leaf, called a spathe, which forms a cocoon with a narrow opening, giving the emerging flower inside just a peek at the outside world. This marbled “hoodie” gives us our first glimpse at the masterpiece spring is about to unveil, while protecting the emerging flower from nature’s elements as well as predators. The developing flower inside, greenish–yellow and somewhat medieval, torture-device looking, is actually multiple flowers fused together. This first flower of the season lacks the showy petals many of its better looking relatives have. Showy petals are really ineffective for attracting pollinators in this chilly, gray and colorless season.
The skunk cabbage uses the power of scent to attract pollinators. The flowering of skunk cabbage all happens inside the fanciful "hood". The skunk cabbage flowers when stamens emerge and push up between and above the sepals, releasing butter colored pollen. Next, the style grows out of the middle of each flower to be pollinated by insects carrying pollen from other flower heads. These insects are enticed into the mottled maroon cocoon by a strong and unpleasant smell. To some people, the odors conjure up memories of rotting road kill on a hot summer's day. All for good reason, as many of the pollinators helping to produce new life for the skunk cabbage are the same creatures drawn to rotting flesh and who aid in the decomposition process.
Another remarkable feature of this cool weather flower is its ability to produce heat. This is why you see a circular melted area around the spathe. Heat is caused by the growth of the flower which is at the same time breaking down starch stored in the roots. It is also using a great deal of oxygen which is funneled in and out of the spathe. One might say a natural vortex of primordial plant passion is produced. The heat generated around the spathe is also just enough to keep the emerging bud next to the spathe warm and protected until it is ready to emerge. The long green roll pushes up and then unfurls its green flag of spring.
So, don’t surrender to the doldrums of winter, get out into the woods and look for signs of spring heating up!