Mar 26 2011

A Spot of Warmth

Published by at 7:30 am under Phenology,Plants


Yow!  It’s cold this morning!  18oF!  Even so, there’s a spot of warmth in the woods.

Though it looks weird and smells bad, this plant is exciting to find because it’s one of the first to flower in the Spring.

This is eastern skunk cabbage, a wetland plant that’s found in northeastern Asia (Siberia to Japan) and northeastern North America (Quebec to Minnesota to the mountains of North Carolina).  

Skunk cabbage has many names but most of them refer to its smell, a fetid odor that’s sure to offend if you break or tear the plant. Foetid is even in its scientific name:  Symplocarpus foetidus.  It smells awful to us but it’s attractive to scavenging insects who pollinate the plant and possibly seek it out for warmth.

Warmth?

Yes, skunk cabbage’s other claim to fame is that it generates its own heat, a talent called thermogenesis.  The skunk cabbage spadix (the flower spike inside this purple spathe) can maintain a 60oF temperature while the outdoor temperature is 5oF.  Scientists have theorized that the warmth attracts insects to come inside out of the cold.

Look for skunk cabbage now and remember where you find it.  In late spring the flower disappears and in its place will be huge, bright green leaves that look so different that the plant is almost unrecognizable!

(photo by Sue Sweeney from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)

One response so far

One Response to “A Spot of Warmth”

  1. Kathy Mon 27 Mar 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I love to see the first skunk cabbage and know that spring is on the way. I took me a long time to realize that those huge leaves in the summer are related to that weird flower.

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