Urban Wilds Vol. 3 – Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Photo via Wikipedia by Quadell

Urban Wilds is written by Lela S. Lela lives in Petworth. You can read Lela’s first post on Wood Frogs here.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Skunk cabbage is called that for a reason, and you can sniff out these wetland plants with your eyes closed. But in early spring, they’re most visible as some of the very first plants to begin to flower, sometimes when there’s still snow on the ground. In a reversal of my last post, they do this by actually generating their own heat. In the process of warming themselves up, the plants burn through a huge amount of oxygen – as much by weight as a hummingbird would use. This thermal mechanism is two kinds of good for the skunk cabbage. The heat protects their developing tissues from the cold, letting them actually melt through layers of snow or ice and get a jump on other plants. It also warms and helps to disperse the molecules that make up the plants’ particular smell, attracting early-hatching insects. That fragrance contains chemical compounds similar to those in rotting flesh, wonderfully called putrecine and cadaverine. I think the smell is kind of delicious, in a woodsy way.

Look for young skunk cabbages in low-lying, wet areas in early March – Rock Creek is always a good bet. Their purple and green spathes (bizarre, twisted pods containing the flowers) should be visible now, and the plants may be leafing out. Later in the spring, the big, vigorous leaves can completely dominate an area, crowding out the competition in a thick blanket of green.

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