Skunk Cabbage in Spring

skunk cabbage

Whenever I go into the woods this time of year, I look for spring wildflowers to be in bloom. There are a large variety of plants that take advantage of the scanty leaf canopy of early spring to grow and bloom quickly, before the trees leaf out. Where I live in North Berwick we are behind most of the Seacoast region in terms of blooms– my garlic is barely up yet, the ponds by the river still have some ice every morning!!!

In search of wildflowers, I went for a walk (by myself) at Great Works Regional Land Trust’s Rocky Hills Preserve last week and came upon one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in New England-one of my favorite plants-skunk cabbage! This patch of skunk cabbage had been in bloom for awhile, I could tell this because in addition to the flowers the leaves were already out and gloriously unfolded into bright green skunky masses.

It is only after the flowers are pollinated and begin to wilt that the leaves unfurl-this is how I knew pollination was long over-those huge cabbage-like leaves. Early in the spring the skunk cabbage sends up a fleshy, highly-modified leaf forming that distinctive purplish hood. The scientific term for this is the spathe. Inside the spathe is a knoblike structure, a collection of tightly-packed flowers, called the spadix. Next time you see one, take a close look at the spadix. The structure of the spathe is really interesting–the petals emerging from a jigsaw puzzle-like surface that looks, to me, like the carapace of a turtle.

skunk cabbage spadix and spathe
Close up of spadix-this contains the flowers of the skunk cabbage-each of those little frilly bumps is a flower.

In the spring, often before the ground begins to thaw, cells in the spadix start to respire, breaking down starches stored in the root at an alarming rate. This rapid respiration produces heat! Studies have shown that respiration rates in thermogenic (heat-producing) plants such as skunk cabbage often equal those of mammals of similar sizes. The hood acts as an insulator, trapping the heat generated by the spadix, creating a balmy little microclimate (usually a fairly consistent 60- 70 degrees) that can melt the surrounding snow. I love Craig Holdredge’s (from the Nature Institute) description of the air currents generated by this warmth: “Due to the warmth production, a constant circulation of air in and out of the spathe occurs. From the flower head, warmth is generated and the air moves up and outward, while cooler air is drawn into the spathe. A vortex is formed with air streaming along the sculpted, curved surfaces of the spathe. In a habitat with numerous skunk cabbages, a microcosm of flowing warmth and odiferous air is created in which the first insects of spring fly.”

I have a large colony of false hellebore-a plant that looks somewhat similar to skunk cabbage and, as far as I know, inhabits the same kind of ecosystem–wet, marshy areas– growing along my river. I wish I also had skunk cabbage, and wonder why they don’t grow there as well. I have thought about trying to transplant some in, but it is usually a mistake to try to re-engineer an ecosystem. I worry that the skunk cabbage might take over-much as I love them I don’t want them to crowd out the false hellebore (another plant with an amazing back story). Skunk cabbages can form large colonies with extensive root systems that consist of a central rhizome that grows one or two feet into the ground with roots radiating out. The roots contract as they grow, pulling the plant down into the ground as it grows in the spring, keeping the stems and leaves at ground level. So the skunk cabbage, as a whole, grows downward every year, making it extremely difficult to remove. What’s more, these root systems and the colonies of skunk cabbage that erupt from them every spring can be hundreds to possibly thousands of years old!

If you can get outside, take a walk in the woods and look for spring wildflowers. We
are lucky enough to live in a place with 4 distinct seasons and are able to track the
passage of time by immersing ourselves in the highlights of each season (trailing
arbutus is flowering-a highlight, black flies are out in my neck of the woods–not a
highlight!). During this historic and stressful time it is more important than ever to get
some green time if at all possible.

Signs of Spring

I had this idea back in 2020 but didn’t do anything with it because I don’t know how to make this easy–anyway, if you would like to send me a photo and description of a sign of spring in your area-please do. You can do it through the contact form or just email it to me at spike3116@gmail-com and I’ll upload it here. I would love to have photo documentation of the changes as they happen every spring. I’m somewhat lame with website organization, so if anyone has an easier way for me to do this than through the above form–please let me know!.

Skunk Cabbage at the south end of York Pond, Rocky Hills Preserve, Eliot ME. 4/17/20 Note the purple spathes of the flowers at the base of the leaves.
This is a close up of the spadix–the flower of the skunk cabbage. You can see parts of the flower sticking out from the pulpy jigsaw-like complex of the spadix.
American Wintergreen Pyrola americana 4/17/20 Stubbs Marsh North Berwick
Downy rattlesnake plantain Goodyera pubescens 4/17/20 Stubbs Marsh North Berwick ME
Red Maple flowers Acer rubrum 4/18/20 Little River North Berwick
Trailing arbutus Epigaea repens Rocky Hills Preserve Eliot ME 4/17/20