Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Skunk Cabbage!

Nope, this is not an exotic dish that you would wrinkle your nose up at a fancy dinner party. "Would you care to partake in the skunk cabbage? It has been aged in oaken barrels for 10 years." Nor is it a roadkill specialty Uncle Jethro from way down South makes. It is actually a spring wildflower and a really cool one, at that.

What prompted this post on Skunk Cabbage was an inquiry from my niece, Brenda. She had found an interesting plant on a hike she had taken in southwest Virginia. So she sent me a few pics, one that is posted below.

Of course I was very excited that she had found the plant and sent her a long-winded e-mail about it. And now, I will torture all my readers with some of the same info. So here goes...

Skunk Cabbage is in the Arum family and has other relatives like Peace Lillies and Calla Lillies. They have the strangest-looking flowers that bloom in February and March, and have the amazing ability to produce their own heat or thermoregulate. If you look at the photo below, by my friend John Howard, you can see the various parts of the plant. The hood-like sheath is called a spathe and tucked inside you will find the spadix which is covered with small green flowers. The spathe can generate temperatures around 70 degrees F! This plant is HOT! This ability aids the plant in attracting early pollinators like flies and bees that might be looking for some relief from the elements. It also helps melt snow which is sometimes prevalent this time of year.

Note the yellowish spadix tucked inside the maroon spathe of the Skunk Cabbage. The spadix contains many tiny green flowers that flies and bees pollinate when visiting the warm, stinky flower

Skunk Cabbage produces chemicals called putrescine and cadaverine. Yep, the chemical smells of death or, as one website put it, putrifying flesh. Yuck! Anyway, this also attracts the flies to help pollinate it. The flies think they are getting a great snack and a warm place to stay. What a deal!

Another chemical that Skunk Cabbage possesses is calcium oxalate. It produces a sensation of hot, stinging needles that last for hours if one ingests it. By producing this chemical, it deters animals from eating the plant. It supposedly has some medicinal qualities; some Native Americans would use use the crushed petioles of the plant to heal deep bruises.

In late spring, the spathes will wither and leave behind a pile of round seeds. Up will arise large green leaves, that also impart a skunk-like odor when crushed. These leaves will persist through the summer.

I love scientific names because sometimes they let one see what characteristics the person naming the plant keyed in on. The scientific name of Skunk Cabbage is an interesting one: Symplocarpus foetidus. Symplocarpus means connected fruit, describing the spadix. Foetidus means foul or evil-smelling. Foul-smelling, for sure, and that odd-looking spadix is pretty amazing.

Skunk Cabbage likes to grow in wet places. You can find Skunk Cabbage at the north end of Eagle Creek Park and it is found in a couple of places at Holliday Park near the board walk. Look for the flower of this little stinker until the end of March, then look for the leaves in late spring.


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