By Rick Borchelt
February in Maryland often brings some of the season’s coldest temperatures, along with our best chances for snow and ice. Water pools and freezes in low-lying areas, including in idle spots along streams, lakes and rivers that are permanently wet and often ice-bound, if not snow-covered, in late winter.
If you were a flower, you’d be crazy to bloom in this kind of weather. Unless, of course, your name is Symplocarpus foetidus. Yes, our eastern skunk cabbage is more than eager to bloom, even in our coldest weather from December through March. Well camouflaged against the dead leaves and twigs of the wet forest floor, this wetlands gem is more than worth searching out.
Skunk cabbage’s flower emerges months before its large, green leaves do. The 6-inch flower is easily recognized by its shape — a mottled green and brown hood, called the spathe, with a slit on the side, and a stubby cigar-like flower stalk, the spadix, which is covered with tiny flowers, inside the hood. The first parts of the skunk cabbage to open are female, but as these flower parts wither and die, the plant starts to transform, and its male flower parts fully mature. The flower itself is reminiscent of the better-known wildflower, jack-in-the-pulpit, and house plants like calla lilies and anthuriums, all of which have this spathe-and-spadix architecture.
The word skunk and the Latin foetidus both hint that something about the plant smells noxious — and is that ever true. If you bruise or cut a leaf or spathe, you’ll know you’ve encountered one skunk of a plant. By contrast, the cabbage’s flowers themselves are faintly sweet and attract flies, bees, beetles and other small pollinators.
But even with sweet-smelling flowers on offer, what self-respecting pollinator would brave the cold of winter to search out skunk cabbage?
Herein lies the skunk cabbage’s superpower — it hosts a veritable spa in the middle of its spadix. Yes, skunk cabbage runs its own little furnace, consuming prodigious amounts of oxygen and converting it, through chemical processes we don’t yet fully understand, into pure heat. Even when the temperature around the blooming plant is well below freezing, the temperature inside the spathe remains a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot as to melt ice and snow around the plant. The heat offers a welcome respite for pollinators that may be abroad on a warmish winter day but couldn’t possibly survive a frigid night. They can take refuge within the spathe, and in the process fertilize the female flower or carry pollen to the next skunk cabbage they visit.
Skunk cabbage is widespread throughout eastern North America and well into Canada. Locally, you can spot the flowers now in Guilford Woods, in the wet woods around Lake Artemesia, along the shores of Cash Lake on the Patuxent Research Refuge South Tract and often along the banks of the Patuxent as it wends through the county.
While skunk cabbage tolerates a range of soil conditions, it has to have the black, mucky soils of woodland bogs and swamps to truly thrive. In the right spot, these plants can live almost indefinitely. Indeed, J. Marion Shull, writing in the Journal of Heredity, in 1924, notes, “Thus it happens that the skunk cabbage seen today growing in unpretentiousness in any bog may possibly outrival the sturdiest of oaks in point of age…and may continue there a thousand years and more from now if only the fates be kind.”
The habitat skunk cabbages, along with other denizens of woodland bogs and marshes, require unfortunately is not the same habitat that humans insist upon for agriculture, housing or recreation. College Park in fact sits on what used to be an extensive wet woodland before it was drained and subdivided; close your eyes and imagine thousands of acres of skunk cabbages under canopies of swamp maples, chestnut oaks and black gums.
So when you see that dappled, hooded flower in late winter, or the lush green carpet of large leaves after the flowers expire, spare a thought for the importance of this midwinter furnace of a flower that contributes to the ecology of the forest, even in the dead of the winter. I like to think about and be thankful for the reminder of deep time that every skunk cabbage invokes.
Have questions for Rick about the world of nature in and around the city, or suggestions for future College Park Wild columns? Drop him a note at email@example.com.