When I was a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, my friends and I often explored the wilds of the neighborhood. Many of the forests and fields where we found box turtles then are now suburban lots and corporate headquarters. My friend Rick and I would tromp through slick, muddy swamps and fens to hunt frogs and occasionally chase each other with the torn, foul smelling leaves of the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).
Leaves that smell like a skunk—an interesting strategy for a plant to keep from being eaten. Although I have heard that bears, when they emerge hungry from their dens, will eat the young leaves.
The leaves are not the only part of the plant with a scent. Weeks ago, I headed to nearby wetlands to see this “first wildflower of spring.” The red and yellow mottled hoods of the Skunk Cabbage, which are modified leaves called a spathe, had emerged through the snow and ice, looking like they melted the area around them. That’s actually what happens. Remarkably, as the plant uses starches stored within it in respiration it can heat itself up as much as 36 degrees above the air temperature!
The flower cluster inside the spathe is the spadix, a rounded head of tightly packed flowers. This flower head also puts out that skunky smell, and the heated air spreads it around to attract carrion-feeding flies and gnats to encourage pollination. It’s amazing that there are flies out pollinating flowers in February and early March.
Pollinators are really important. More than 90% of flowering plants need them to spread pollen from one flower to another to fertilize those flowers so that fruits can form. We often think of only bees and butterflies as pollinators, but in fact flies are the second most prolific pollinators behind bees.
Right now, the large, dark green leaves of the Skunk Cabbage are about at half their full size. When fully developed, the broad deep green leaves look like cabbage. They are spongy and full of water. When the trees above are fully leafed out, Skunk Cabbage leaves begin to fade. Because no woody material is left behind with this true spring ephemeral, by late summer you wouldn’t even know that Skunk Cabbage had been there.
But their spreading roots are still below the ground. Those roots have pulled the stem downward. As the plant ages it grows deeper and deeper into the soil, waiting for late winter and early spring to begin the cycle all over again.