Despite the early April snow, our native plants are showing courage and beginning to grow. Yesterday, I visited the colony of Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, Aracacae, that grows south-west of Orangeville right alongside a well-travelled road. (You can see the road gravel thrown off the roadside by the snow ploughs in one of the photos.)
Skunk Cabbage is a fascinating plant with several quite unusual adaptations to getting an early start in Spring. Its upper parts are capable of generating a significant amount of heat: 15+ Celsius degrees above ambient air temperature! This added heat seems to accomplish several functions simultaneously. It means that Skink Cabbage can literally melt its way through snow. It means that the warmth inside the flower helps keep the early pollinators basking in the extra heat, hanging around and maximizing the chance that they will transfer pollen to the benefit of the plant. It also means that the rising warm air spreads the pungent smell that comes from broken leaves and from the spadix as it flowers. The rising warm air may also enable a small amount of wind pollination!
Skunk Cabbages are related to Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and share several general features. The cut or bruised vegetation releases a pungent smell. Plants have important underground storage organs, a corm for Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and a huge rhizome (an extended corm, I suppose — or perhaps the other way round: a corm is a shortened underground stem or rhizome) for Skunk Cabbage. Supposedly, the rhizomes of the Skunk Cabbage can reach 30 cm in diameter! While Jack-in-the-Pulpit corms are poisonous, and Skunk Cabbage is not, both species were important Spring or Fall food sources for indigenous peoples, who learned how to prepare the edible portions by drying or baking before consumption.
The other major feature shared between the plants of the Aracaceae is that the flower is wrapped by a spadix or surrounding leaf-like structure, and has as its central core a spathe, a spike-like structure that holds either the male or the female parts. In the first picture of the Skunk Cabbages, the lovely red-mottled spathe surrounds a thick paler yellowy-brown spadix down inside.
By the way, I knelt down in the marsh beside the road to smell these Skunk Cabbages — and they didn’t yet smell. Not quite ready for action!
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An update after our early Spring snowstorm!
I went out mid-day on Friday April 7th as the sun was beginning to warm up the air and melt the snow that had blown in on top of the sprouting Skunk Cabbages. They seemed to be having no trouble with the weather — it had only gotten just below the freezing point, after all. But they were certainly not melting any snow yet. I suspect that’s because the air temperature is still too cool for any insects to be flying. Somehow the plants seem to understand to get ready, but not to actually push forward on actual flower development.