This time let's go to the plant world to find a harbinger of Spring. A good plant to pick is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Yes, it stinks! But, it is a very interesting plant. The skunk cabbage is highly dependent upon a wet environment; its roots need muddy soil all year. So look for wetlands to see skunk cabbages or conversely, spot skunk cabbages and you will know that you have found wetlands. Wear boots if you go looking for them in the Park!
It is exactly at this time of year before the Spring equinox (March 21) that the skunk cabbage emerges from the wet, cold ground, sometimes as early as late January. You will see small leaves that look like little hoods. These hoods (called spathes) enclose the spadix, which consists of a spike carrying the flowers of the skunk cabbage. How can this plant appear so early when it is still so cold? It turns out that cells of the spadix contain enzymes that break down starches. Starches, imported from storage in the root system, contain lots of energy, which is released as heat when they are broken down. This released heat warms the spathe up to 70◦F and this heat can melt snow around the plant. It also intensifies the stinky smell. The heat, the smell (similar to that of decaying meat) and the reddish-brown, meat-like appearance of the spathe attract insects that will pollinate the plants. It's not surprising that these insects are usually flies and carrion beetles!
The spathe is a highly modified leaf and functions to protect the flowers, which lack petals. After the flowers have been pollinated, the flower head develops into a fruit head about 5 inches in diameter. Each fruit head contains many red, berry-shaped fruits, which each enclose one seed.
The leaves develop from a bud that rises out the ground near the spathe and may already be present before the spathe arises. All the leaves of the plant are contained in this bud. When the days get warmer, the leaves will unfold rapidly in a spiraling pattern. The leaves have a long, thick leaf stalk and are oblong in shape. They can grow to 3 or 4 feet in length. At the end of the growing season, skunk cabbage leaves do not dry up. Instead, after small holes form in the leaves, they begin to hang down and turn black and slimy. This process is rapid and the leaves soon disappear.
At this point, not much remains above the surface, but underneath in the earth, you will find a massive root system. There is a thick stem called the rootstock or rhizome. Out of the lower portion grow the roots, which do not branch until near the tips. The interesting thing about the roots is that they are contractile. The roots grow and contract, grow and contract and each contraction pulls the plant downward into the earth, so that a mature skunk cabbage is deeply anchored in the ground. This massive root system stores the large amounts of food needed for the rapid growth of the leaves in the spring.
So see if you can spot some skunk cabbage spathes in the wetter parts of the park. Once you know where they are, you will know that Spring will soon be here – and you can follow the skunk cabbage's development throughout the spring and summer!
The drawings in this article were done by Craig Holdrege of The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York.