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

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