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Speaking of Nature

Skunk cabbage is an unlikely but early-blooming flower

Sunday, March 10, 2013
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Speaking of Nature


These skunk cabbage flowers were photographed in March. Note that a raccoon had already been out exploring and left its tracks in the mud next to the stream. (photo: Bill Danielson)
These skunk cabbage flowers were photographed in March. Note that a raccoon had already been out exploring and left its tracks in the mud next to the stream. (photo: Bill Danielson)

Spring is often associated with flowers, right? The landscape is freed from the iron grip of winter, life starts to awaken from its long slumber, and the plants celebrate with flowers. Rather poetic actually, but there’s some truth there too.

But when you think of flowers you’re probably imagining the delicate, brightly colored petals of violets, hepatica or trout lily. I would be very surprised if you were thinking of the flowers of the skunk cabbage, but this peculiar-looking flower is actually one of the first to start blooming. The problem is that they are just a little odd in their appearance, their timing, and their location.

First, while they are technically flowers, you might not know this by looking at them. The skunk cabbage is a member of the Arum family, which has about 2,000 members worldwide. This family contains some very well-known species, but the blossoms may not match the classic model of a flower that resides in your head.

Unique appearance

For instance, the many tiny flowers have no actual petals and are crowded onto a fleshy spike called a “spadix,” which resembles a small ear of corn. The spadix is surrounded, and in the case of the skunk cabbage, is enclosed by a fleshy “spathe.” The spathe can be any color, but in the case of the skunk cabbage it varies from a mottled green to the same deep red of a red delicious apple.

The skunk cabbage’s most famous cousin is the cala lily, which has a spathe that looks like a single beautiful petal. Here in North American we have a version of our own — the wild cala — that is similar but not as elegant as the tropical cala lily. Another well-known cousin is the Jack-in-the-pulpit.

The second characteristic of this flower that may confound the novice is the fact that it can start blooming as early as February. Because of its rapid growth, the heat generated from cellular respiration is actually sufficient to melt snow away from the flower. Even on cold days the microclimate inside the hollow chamber of the spathe can actually reach 72 degrees!

Attracting insects

As a result, there are many early-emerging insects that are associated with the skunk cabbage. Flies that specialize on carrion will appear early in the year to take advantage of the bodies of any unfortunate animals that died during the winter. The skunky odor of the skunk cabbage is the plant’s attempt to attract them.

Honeybees are also attracted to skunk-cabbage flowers, not only for food, but also as warm-up stations. Honeybees cannot fly well when the temperature falls below 65 degrees, but they can often be found flying from one skunk-cabbage flower to another on days when the temperature is as low as 42 degrees.

Lastly, the skunk cabbage is found in wet areas, which are generally avoided in the spring. As a result, flowers may pass unnoticed, but they are definitely worth finding because they are quite attractive.

Viewing destination

If you would like to go on an adventure, but still guarantee that you find a skunk cabbage flower, all you need to do is go to the Pine Bush. Head over to Colonie, turn onto Rapp Road, and you will find the “back” entrance to the preserve.

A very short walk down a well-marked trail will bring you to a small bridge over a lazy little stream. Along the stream, sometimes even in the water itself, you will find the flowers poking their way up in an early celebration of spring.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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