Winter always tricks me into thinking I can wander carelessly through the fields and woods. Especially when there is snow, I am lulled into the false pretense that I am indeed leaving only footprints. A walk in early February proved me wrong, as usual.
Near the pond I was thinking warm thoughts of spring despite the 28-degree weather. Why? I had noticed some bright green grass and watercress growing right where a shallow spring enters the pond, a mini-estuary without the salt water. And, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was peering over the snow! Clearly I still had to be careful where I was walking.
This small section is the most primordial-seeming part of our property. There is just something about Skunk Cabbage and the spring flowing in this spot that evokes a scene from The Land of the Lost – a silly TV show I liked as a kid where a family gets sucked into the distant past and must deal with dinosaurs. Anywhere else I look on our property might cause me to ponder the 1800s, or perhaps earlier when Native Americans lived here, but this spot with the Skunk Cabbage takes me much further back.
Skunk Cabbage is an early sign of spring. The plant sends up a flower before its leaves as early as January where I live. It gets its name from the unpleasant odor it produces. I’ve never noticed anything unpleasant, but I’m also not willing to get on my hands and knees in a cold, wet spring in February to get a better whiff. The odor attracts its pollinators, which include flies, stoneflies, and bees, but also butterflies and beetles. The leaves are poisonous to humans and some mammals because of their oxalate content, but black bear and many bird species do eat the leaves and seeds.
How does Skunk Cabbage flower when snow is on the ground? It is capable of thermogenesis. It is able to raise the temperature 15-35°C (59-95°F) above the air temperature, thereby melting the snow and thawing the ground and pushing through the surface. That’s pretty impressive. All we can do is shiver a bit or run around and work up a sweat. Otherwise, we need to harness a natural resource in order to produce that much heat. The heat produced by the plant probably also plays a role in attracting early pollinators by helping the odor to dissipate and by providing a warm place to hang out.
Skunk Cabbage has another ability that I find even more amazing than thermogenesis. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symplocarpus_foetidus)
“Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.”
That is not what I learned in school! I’m sure this happens slowly, but I’m having trouble getting an image out of my head of a sort of pulsing movement of roots contracting below ground and leaves getting sucked down. If it were observable, it would be worth a few hours camped out in the cabbage patch taking notes.
So the Skunk Cabbage can provide its own heat and it’s firmly grounded. That’s better than a lot of higher organisms can do. But there’s more. Skunk Cabbage also plans for the future, several years in advance. I found the following from Craig Holdrege, an unabashed lover and studier of Skunk Cabbage (http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic4/skunkcabbage.htm)
“Most plants in any given population are well-established, with numerous years of development behind them. But they also prepare for the future. In the summer I dissected a skunk cabbage, peeling away leaf after leaf from the base of the stalk. What I found astounded me, even though, having done some reading before, I was somewhat prepared for it. At the base of one of the middle leaves there was the bud of a spathe that will grow out in the following spring. It was about 2 cm long and already deep wine-red in color. A few leaves further inward another spathe bud was visible—smaller and still white. This spathe would emerge in the spring after next. Another, even smaller spathe follows after a few more leaves; it would emerge two and a half years later! When I cut the rootstock lengthwise, I could see several more tiny spathe buds (the size of the tip of a ball-point pen) at the base of the shoot. Spathes are being prepared years ahead.
In this way skunk cabbage lays down its future course of development. What we normally perceive encompasses the development of the spathe and the rapid outer growth and decay of the leaves each year. At the other pole of the plant, the roots grow ever further and draw the plant downward. In these two poles the plant unfolds activity into and with its environment. But hidden in the inner core of the plant, protected from all direct contact with the elements, a sketch of things to come is continually developing.”
A plant I’ve admired since we moved to Halcyon has, from just an afternoon of research, awed me in its complexity. As I learn more about the life on our property, I too hope my roots get pulled deeper and deeper into the soil.