Monday, April 25, 2011

A Spate of Spathes

My new favorite flower of the moment is Symplocarpus foetidus, a.k.a. the Eastern Skunk Cabbage - a piece of greenery about which I knew little until I began this ode in essay form.
For the past two years my pet plant was the hollyhock. Some of my other previous picks have been peony, hosta, lady's mantle, and Chinese lanterns --- all of which were growing, or attempting to do so, on Mars and my property. This annum's choice is the first geographic outsider. The others have been perennials that have attracted my attention with their neediness for nurturing. This one is what I would call an inevitable -- a perpetually appearing piece of vegetation that could not care less whether I, or anyone, paid it any notice. The older I get, the more I like that in a plant.

In our neck of the woods, skunk cabbages are pretty much the first sign of spring. The only problem is you really have to be pretty much out in the woods -- in March when the ground is still frozen and the frost continues to come every night -- in order to see that seasonal signal. I wasn't out there this year -- or any previous ones for that matter. But I did read about what I would have observed had I been there -- a spate of spathes, that is to say, clusters of four to six inch, maroon or yellow-green, floral hoods asserting themselves upwards amidst the wooded wetlands.

"The hood is, in botanical terms, a highly modified leaf called a spathe. The spathe wraps around itself to form a space that encloses a spherical head of flowers, called a spadix. The spathe functions as a bud that holds and protects the flower when it emerges out of the ground. But it is a bud that never unfolds. When the flowers are full in bloom, they are still enwrapped by the spathe. You can see the flower head only by peeking inside the narrow opening in the spathe."
The flower head is however, at least visually, something considerably less exciting than you would expect from such a peep show.

"They have no petals, which make up the showy part of the flower in most plants. Rather, they have four inconspicuous, fleshy, straw-colored sepals (which in many plants form the bud leaves enclosing the petals) that never really unfold.

"The flowers 'bloom' when the stamens grow up between and above the sepals and release their pale yellow pollen. Following this the style grows out of the middle of each flower to be pollinated by insects carrying pollen from other flower heads. All of this happens within the enclosing spathe. These first flowers of spring never leave their protective enclosure."

What is really cool however is the skunk cabbage's ability to generate heat when it is flowering -- enough heat (20 degrees C above the outside temperature) to melt the surrounding ice and give itself the room and the conditions that it needs to grow.

"While in this heating phase, the flowers bloom, releasing pollen and being pollinated by insects. Not only can you see the first insects flying around between skunk cabbages, but you also find beetles and spiders crawling around within the warm enclosures of the spathes. You can even discover a spathe opening veiled with a spider net." (

The flowers also give off a lightly skunk-like or (depending upon your perspective) decomposing flesh aroma that attracts still more insects -- the varieties that frequently having starring roles in such television programs as CSI and Bones. In an area with several skunk cabbages a microclimate is formed in which numbers of hovering arthropods, aroused from their winter respite, can be seen, enjoying the warm updrafts in the same manner as eagles playing on the prevailing wind currents.

As the seasonal weather becomes warmer the skunk cabbage's bud, which up until this time had been hunkered down low, just waiting, begins to grow - while at the same time the early adopting spathe begins to wilt. The knoblike growth expands and unfurls rapidly, leaves pirouetting onto the scene like the fan dancers in an old Busby Berkley musical -- each leaf both rolled in upon itself and wrapped around its neighbor.

This is the state that the cabbages are in about now -- and where most of the world, myself included, notices them for the first time and therefore thinks that now is when their seasonal life begins.

It doesn't. It starts pretty much whenever they damn well feel like it.

(photos from

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Duck and Cover

A Mallard Duck couple has been checking out our property over the past week. We've had a few such web footed visitors over the years, but this duo has returned several times and looks as if they could be seriously considering moving in with us.

This would not be the first such instance of green-headed residents living in our neighborhood. A couple of years ago my neighbor E provided lodging for a similar (or perhaps the same) couple in one of the bushes in front of his white colonial house. The family of blunt-billed water birds remained incognito, except to E, until (at the appropriate time in their development) mama led the ducklings out of E's yard, down the street about two blocks, across a busy thoroughfare, and into our area's pond-centric municipal park.

Several years before that, another pair of mallards set up house in a shrub next to our town's Rose garden. The mens garden club of which I am a member maintains the this flower bed, and one Saturday morning, while we were busily dead-heading and weeding, one of the guys bumped up against the woody plant and spotted the brown female and her brood encamped therein.

We kept this discovery to ourselves lest some of the students from the nearby middle school, or others, disturb them. Like E's guest family, this bunch also gave themselves away when they paraded across an even busier roadway on their trek to a nearby (but not that nearby) body of water. My recollection is that they even made our local newspaper.

Our yard does hold a lot of standing water after a heavy rain -- and FEMA, when they redrew their maps after Hurricane Katrina, has declared that Mars and I, as well as several of our neighbors, are now in a "Flood Zone". This is of particular concern to those who still have mortgages since they are now required to purchase flood insurance at a pretty hefty price ($2K/year). But I don't think that makes any difference to the ducks.

My research on the Internet seems to indicate that these birds in general are not that discriminating in their housing preferences. Wild mallards typically nest on the ground, in tall grass and shrubs. Proximity of water does not seem to be a requirement -- until it is time for the great march -- after which the nest is abandoned. My personal favorite location that I found online was on the shooting range at a fish and game club. Go figure!

There are a good number of thick bushes around our abode that would probably fit the bill -- so to speak. But personally I am hoping that the ducks do not opt to stay on our premises. Over the past few years our yard has become a favorite hunting ground for a number of local hawks. Although I imagine that a fully-grown mallard is way too heavy to be hefted away by even the strongest falcon -- the attempted snatch and grab would easily match the opening scene of any "Bones" episode for graphic violence.

Not that we will have much say in the matter anyway. If they do choose to stay here at our humble digs we will certainly make them feel welcome -- which apparently you do by not walking in the area near their nest and otherwise totally ignoring them.

Some might say the perfect guests.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Plan # 2

When we had a vegetable garden, my vernal equinox occurred on the morning that I manually turned the soil therein in preparation for the traditional Memorial Day planting of our crops. Since this event was determined my restless desire to resume my favorite outdoor avocation, rather than any calendar-based reason, it frequently occurred as much as two and one-half months prior to any practical need for it.

Now - except for eight or so tomato plants - we have gone perennial in that part of our horticultural kingdom. This is the direct result of my continued acceptance of "rescue plants" from friends, strangers, and about-to-be dug up public gardens. Plus the fact that year-after-year the ravenous rabbits of our neighborhood have totally ravaged our vegetable plot.

The remaining small amount of space reserved for the tomatoes doesn't provide enough exercise to count as a season-opening ritual. But the sun-warmed-yet-cool early spring air still screams for me to flex my landscaping muscles long before there is any practical work to be done by them.

So here is my solution.

In late autumn I have the exact opposite situation. The various plants in my various perennial beds have run their course for the year. They stand dry and desiccated in the declining warmth of the already ended season. They scream to put out of their misery

I have two choices. (1) I can garb myself in layers of flannel and down and cut the pitiful-looking creatures to the ground, thus letting them spend the upcoming cold part of the year buried totally under a blanket of equally cold precipitation. (2) I can do nothing and justify my lethargy with vague descriptions of mid-winter birds finding sustenance from leftover seeds and shelter in dead frozen stalks - and arty talk of "winter interest" gardens.

I opt for plan number two.

Which allows me to actually do my plant razing on that first warm day in March, combined with some winter leaf clearing - still clad in flannel and down. But only initially - until my bending, twisting, and snipping generates enough body heat to cause mild perspiration and the removal of the outermost layer.

It is not as taxing as my former tilling ceremony. But the sight of fledgling green buds in the midst of chopped-back deadwood tells me that they are as eager to get started as I am, and generates more than enough endorphins to get me pumped up for another gardening season.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Mixed Messages

Mars and I eat a lot of Doves -- no, not the stocky seed- or fruit-eating birds with a small head, short legs, and a cooing voice. What we like are the "silky smooth" dark chocolate Dove "PROMISES" – "Each individually wrapped with a special PROMISES® message inside".

As a result we already get a lot of aphoristic advice on a daily basis. So when we pulled up behind a white delivery truck on U.S. Route 84 the other day we were not that surprised to find yet another commercial enterprise espousing words to live by.

Except I, at least, found their maxim to be just a little confusing.

“Be kind. Be careful.
“Be yourself.” the poster said.
Hey, make up your mind!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Always Remember

Before I retired I was an Information Technology Manager. On one of my projects I was assigned to a team implementing a computer system that was being sold to our company by an outside vendor. I joined the project after we had signed all the contracts and were installing the new software. Part of my job was to work with the vendor's technical expert.

Parts of the system were not performing as we had been told they would by the vendor's sales person. The sales rep was long gone, and the vendor tech expert was being grilled about these discrepancies at one of our project review meetings when she uttered the following words to live by - here slightly paraphrased into haiku form.

Always remember --
marketing people always
say marketing things.