Crum Woods Chronicle: Meet the Skunk Cabbage
by Kate Crowley ‘ 16
Despite some unusually late snow this April, the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is beginning to make its dramatic appearance in the Crum Woods. It is one of the earliest native bloomers in the eastern United States.
In late winter, the spathe, a purplish pod, sticks out of the ground. Within the spathe is the spadix, a knob covered in yellow flowers, which bloom in early spring. These growth stages of the plant are subtle, but worth seeking out for their strange appearance.
In mid-spring, the skunk cabbage abandons its understated appearance and demands to be noticed with huge green leaves. The skunk cabbage grows best on the edge of wetlands, so low-lying areas of the Crum Woods become absolutely carpeted with them once the leaves appear. The effect is especially dramatic because native forests usually have very little other green this early in the season.
Skunk cabbage is such a noticeable feature of our woods there is actually an area of the Crum Woods labeled on official maps as Skunk Cabbage HollowSkunk Cabbage Hollow is located near Ware Pool and the Matchbox. Walk down the paved road behind the Matchbox, down the steep hill, and enter the Crum at the gap in the guardrails. Follow the trail briefly until its first major left branch that leads toward Strath Haven Apartments. The skunk cabbage should be very apparent on the creek’s edge at that point.
Just the name skunk cabbage is enough to pique most people’s interest in this unique plant. It does in fact smell like rotting carrion or an unhappy skunk when disturbed, an honest warning to most mammals, who find it toxic.
Conservationists view it as a happy accident that the smell also dissuades many clueless wanderers from traipsing through fragile wetlands. Besides the obvious smell, skunk cabbage has a number of features that make it worth learning a bit about, if only to provide some great “did you know?” facts when wandering through the woods with friends.
The rhizome, or underground root of the skunk cabbage can allow it to live for many years, re-blooming each year in early spring. While its lifespan has not been rigorously studied, estimates range from several decades to several centuries. Contributing to its ability to out-live many other plants and thrive in extreme conditions is a system of contractile roots, which pull the rhizome deeper into the soil with each passing year.
Skunk cabbage is also able to regulate its own temperature to some degree, which is usually an ability restricted to warm-blooded animals. This unusual heat production occurs in early spring, when the interior of the spathe is noticeably warmer than the outside air.
The warm purple, carrion smelling cocoon draws in insects that pollinate the flowers on the spadix. Then, in the summer when the plant has reached the end of its season, its leaves turn to slime and soak into the soil surrounding the spathe. The skunk cabbage is ready for another year of extreme endurance.
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This article is part of an ongoing column called the Crum Woods Chronicle. The Crum Woods Chronicle will be periodic updates and observations about subjects related to natural history, interesting species found in and around the Crum Woods, and exciting events you can get involved in. My hope is that some of these topics will interest you, strengthen your connection to the Crum Woods, and inspire you to explore your backyard a little more often.
Natural areas do not maintain their character and quality independently, especially when they are heavily used by people and embedded in urban environments. Educating yourself about aspects of the Crum Woods that interest you and understanding how your individual use of the Crum Woods impacts it (and how you can reduce that impact!) are important steps every one of us should take.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum