Note: This is the latest in the series “Wild Things” on the Dayton Outdoor Recreation Examiner.
By Jim McCormac
Ohio Division of Wildlife
After a long, frosty snow-filled winter, scores of outdoor enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the appearance of spring wildflowers. Come April, the explosion of phlox, spring-beauties, trillium and others paint the forest floor in a riot of color. Their emergence sends a welcome message: Winter’s icy hold has been broken; warmer days are ahead.
However, long before the first trout lily or bloodroot pops forth, one of our strangest “wildflowers” has pushed from the mire. The blooming of skunk-cabbage precedes the full wildflower symphony by two months. Skunk-cabbage is not a cabbage – not even close. It is closely related to a well-known wildflower that will follow later in spring, the jack-in-the-pulpit. All parts of this bizarre plant, when bruised, produce an odor that will call to mind malodorous black-and-white four-legged beasts.
Skunk-cabbage is finicky about its haunts. The botanical stinkers grow in springy quagmires of swampy woods. Investigators seeking a closer look are liable to discover that good skunk-cabbage sites are carpeted with boot-sucking soupy muck with the texture of quicksand.
By early February, skunk-cabbage will be in full bloom in many areas. It takes effort to admire the flowers, such as they are. Far more noticeable than the actual blossoms are the fleshy purple and green spathes. These liver-spotted hornlike structures are fleshy tents that shield and protect the skunk-cabbage’s flowers.
Enclosed within the spathe and visible through a gap – the tent flap – is a columnar structure called a spadix. Sprinkling the surface of the spadix like tiny greenish-yellow snowflakes are the true flowers of the skunk-cabbage.
How does skunk-cabbage beat other wildflowers to the punch?
It blooms well before winter has abated, often forcing its spathes through ice and snow. Basically, skunk-cabbage has a built-in furnace. The plant is thermogenic, which means it produces heat as a by-product of cellular respiration as it grows. A skunk-cabbage can be 40 degrees or more warmer than the surrounding air temperature. Thus, the interior of the spathe is toasty warm and attracts early-appearing flies and other small insect pollinators.
After skunk-cabbages’ flowers have mostly withered, the huge leaves emerge. A skunk-cabbage colony in full leaf-out is a spectacle that can’t be missed.
Do a scratch and sniff on a leaf, and you’ll wrinkle your nose in disgust at the olfactory assault. No one will garnish their salad with this stuff! But not all mammals turn up their noses at skunk-cabbage. Newly emerged black bears, arisen from their Rip Van Winkle winter-long slumber, relish the smelly leaves. It may be that skunk-cabbage leaves help the bear to break down the hard anal plug that kept the animal stopped up tight during its hibernation.