Friday 5 July 2013

Skunk Cabbage

Image: KitAy
Symplocarpus foetidus
Ahhhhh! The foul stench of Spring!

The Eastern Skunk Cabbage is actually an arum that turned to the dark side...

Image: Fritz Flohr Reynolds
Not for them the delicate whites and pastel yellows of their inoffensive kin; the Skunk Cabbage adorns itself in the macabre reds and sickly greenish yellows most befitting of illness, death and decay... fun stuff!

Image: John B.
They live in wetlands and swamps on the eastern side of North American, where they are among the first flowers to emerge in the Spring. It could be as early as the latter days of January, and they're often greeted by the snow and ice of a lingering Winter!

Image: Keith Simmons
The amazing thing is that the Skunk Cabbage is able to produce its own heat so it can carve its way to freedom. Snow is melted away, retreating from the ghastly stench-thorn.

Image: VasenkaPhotography
The glassy surface of ice is breached by monstrous claws that rear from the world below.

Image: Elizabeth Sellers
And the Skunk Cabbage stands triumphant in a frozen world, the first flowers of the year... and they stink!

Image: Elizabeth Sellers
Being an arum, the colourful part of the plant is called a spathe and is actually a modified leaf. At its centre is the column-shaped spadix, covered in lots and lots of tiny flowers. They're pollinated by flies attracted to the odour and, interestingly, bees. I wonder if the bees are lowering their standards to get at some tasty nectar early in the year when there are fewer flowers around?

Image: Cyndy Sims Parr
The flowers of the Skunk Cabbage only last for a couple months before they rot away. The bit that survives through the years are the thick, deeply-embedded roots. They're called contractile roots because they contract in length. Getting shorter like this doesn't pull the roots up, but pulls the rest of the plant down!

It means that even as the stem grows longer and longer, it remains entirely buried underground and just long enough to ensure the flowers make it to fresh air. Which they immediately pollute with their stench. It also means the whole plant becomes increasingly well anchored in the wet mud as it grows.

Image: bug_g_membracid
But it's not all doomy flowers and gloomy roots! As the flowers begin to die off and the stench passes its peak, a single, green bud dominates.

Image: Tom Potterfield
It soon unrolls to reveal several huge leaves, each one as much as 60 cm (2 ft) long. They're soft and watery and only last another couple of months before they melt away into almost nothing in July. The plant's entire life above ground lasts only about 6 months, while the roots live on for next year.

Despite being so big, tender and gloriously green, few animals eat the leaves of the Skunk Cabbage. Tearing at a leaf releases a pungent odour and putting it in your mouth produces a burning sensation, as if in homage to their smelly predecessor. The Skunk Cabbage seems to exhibit the whole cycle of life, with a stink in its tail.


Shawn said...

My husband decided to taste a little bit of the leaves of one of these last spring. After all, it has the word cabbage in the name, right? Quote: "Yikes. Tastes like burning." I'd have some mean commentary on his decision making skills, but I don't have much room to talk when one of those decisions was to marry me.

TexWisGirl said...

i've heard of the stinky 'blooms' but hadn't seen the green plant before. cool!

Daniel Berke said...

That is a pretty neat plant.

Joseph JG said...

@Shawn: Haha! Whoops! But I'm sure he just saved up all his decision-making skills for one big decision to marry you and now he doesn't have any left. He might be in a really long cool-down period to build up some decision-making stamina!

@TexWisGirl: Glad I could show you something new!

@Daniel Berke: Yes! I just thought it looked cool at first but it turned out to be much more interesting than I thought!

Anonymous said...

Bee's are lowering their standards - funny!