Awaiting Skunk Cabbage

The frigid disconsolate abyss that is wintertime in Michigan does not make for very compelling floral forays. Most of my winter outdoor activities involve peering at tree buds, admiring mosses, and trying (and failing) to get into birding. The silver lining of enduring a long winter is it makes you appreciate the beauty of spring. You can understand why many longingly anticipate the blooming of Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus), the true harbingers of spring! Move over Erigenia bulbosa!

Along with witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), skunk cabbages are one of the very first plants to produce flowers in the midwest. In southern Michigan they can bloom as early as late February. Skunk cabbages are wetland plants that grow in swamps, floodplains, and wet woodlands.

These plants are able to produce flowers despite sometimes freezing temperatures due to metabolic processes which produce heat within their inflorescence. In skunk cabbages, the production of heat serves to melt snow surrounding the flower and amplify pollinator-attracting odors present in their flowers. In late winter, these flowers can be seen poking up from the ground within a circle of melted snow. The combination of heat, smell and color in skunk cabbage flowers leads researchers to believe these plants mimic carrion in order to attract pollinators (1). Heat within the inflorescence amplifies scents given off, (often compared to apple, garlic, or feces) and also may attract insects searching for refuge in cold temperatures (2).

Skunk cabbage preparing to emerge

Skunk cabbages are in the same family (Araceae) as such beloved ornamental plants as peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum), Dieffenbachia, Anthurium, ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) and Elephant ears (Caladium). The smallest plant in the world, Duckweed (Wolffia globosa), is also a member of this family. Another infamous relative of skunk cabbage is the corpse plant or titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), known to have the largest single inflorescence of any flower.

Selfie with a flowering titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), a much larger relative of skunk cabbage, at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus OH

The flower structure of Aroid plants is unusual. Known as a spathe and spadix, these inflorescences consist of a column of tightly grouped tiny, reduced flowers (spadix) and an often colorful leaflike bract (spathe) surrounding the column of flowers. Within flowering plants only Aroids (Araceae) and palm trees (Arecaceae) have spathe and spadix type inflorescences, although other families such as Acoraceae have spadix type inflorescences without the enclosing spathe. In some Aroids, the male and female flowers are separated on the spadix and may bloom at different times, or may occur on separate individual plants. In others, including eastern skunk cabbage, the flowers are bisexual.

Close up of a flowering skunk cabbage

Skunk cabbages have a unique way of deterring insect pests. Like other Aroids, they produce oxalate crystals in many of their tissues (3). These crystals can be irritating to herbivores and potentially help introduce toxins. Leaves emerge after the flowers die back and form a large spreading rosette which persists through the summer months. Crushed leaves give off a distinctly skunk-like odor which gives the plant its common name. Their fruits mature in late fall and are consumed by woodland mammals.

Skunk cabbage leaves

Aside from everything highlighted above that makes skunk cabbages unique and interesting, they also usher in a long awaited season of spring ephemerals, sunshine, and salamanders. After a long winter filled with political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and ever increasing cases of Covid-19, spring cannot come fast enough.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Skunk cabbage appreciation memes:

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