If you aren’t looking where you are going in the early spring muck, you may miss these wonders. As I was hiking this weekend, I admit, I stepped on one of these flowers camouflaged among the fallen leaves and reflective puddles of melting snow. To me, seeing these means spring is on its way. This year, they are blooming a little bit later than their typical February debut, but even these curiosities couldn’t get themselves out from underneath the thick blanket mother nature provided this winter. A little bit of snow is no challenge for these native perennials, in fact, like fancy ski resort walkways (so you don’t slip getting to the lodge for that refreshing beverage), they have their own internal snow melting system. Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) creates its own heat! Know who else does this, a process also known as thermogenesis? People, mammals. Yes, here we have a plant that creates its own heat, like we do. Well, not exactly like we do. But, this blog isn’t about plants that make their own warmth, it’s about plants that move and how they move. So why the skunk cabbage? Two reasons.
Skunk Cabbages facilitate winter movement of insects, and in turn the plant’s movement through the swamp. Their warm flowers, located inside the mottled “hood”, (to us plant nerds this is called a spathe), can be as balmy as 70 degrees, providing a warming hut (to go back to skiing terms again) for cold-blooded insects. Next time you are in some muddy meadow or forest in late winter, keep your eyes out for these and gently touch, you will notice it is spongy. The insulating air pockets of this spongy hood keep the warmth next to the flower. In this way, these flowers enable their own pollination. As the insects, most often early flies and beetles, hop from warm flower to warm flower, they take some pollen along with them. How do the flies know this flower will provide them much needed warmth? Their color and their smell. These aren’t called skunk cabbage for nothing! As the plant warms itself, the oils contained in the leaves start to warm up and become a vapor, becoming airborn. But unlike your vanilla lavender scented air freshener heating up in your outlet, these flowers smell like rotting meat as they warm, and that smells great to flies. A good rule of thumb to remember is that flowers the color of raw meat (maroon often with mottling) generally smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies. Fun, huh! So to summarize the amazing Skunk Cabbage: the flower warms up, the oils warm up, the stink attracts a fly, the fly goes to the flower, golden pollen sticks to the fly, fly gets bored in flower, fly goes outside, fly gets cold, fly heads to the next warm flower, pollen falls off, new pollen is collected and so on and so on. Genius!
Skunk Cabbages also move all on their own. Maybe you’ve seen these and thought, “Boy that’s gorgeous, I can use a February flower in my garden, how come I cant find these at the garden center?” I can’t be the only person thinking this can I? You probably think Skunk Cabbage are unlikely find their way to garden centers because of their smell, but as is evidenced by the Paw Paw, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Red Trillium, (and in my opinion the purple hyacinth and stargazer lily) stinky plants often make it into the garden center trade. The truth is that Skunk Cabbages are too hard to transplant. These become massive plants, with huge leaves and an enormous root system. The root system actually pulls the plant further down into the mud as it gets bigger. If you want one in the shady wet area of your garden and see one in the woods, don’t even try to dig it up – it won’t work. You will kill the plant, hurt your back and take away some much needed protection for small birds, frogs and salamanders. Because this plant likes to travel downwards, and the container needed to grow this plant with its extensive root system successfully is very resource intensive, it is not likely you will see these in any quantity in garden centers soon. But given they are not bothered by deer, there may be hope. Until then, enjoy them where you find them, in the wet forests and meadows of the Northeast.