Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spring has sprung, botanically speaking

Like some sort of alien claw reaching from the mire, the liver-spotted spathe of a skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, pops forth. This odd member of the Arum Family (Araceae) is our true harbinger-of-spring; the first of the native wildflowers to burst into bloom.

This place, Kiwanis Park, is one of my local patches. It's less than ten minutes from my dwelling, and when time is limited I sometimes go there to look for photographic subjects. I ALWAYS hit Kiwanis in late February, as the park contains a nice little spring - home to dozens and dozens of skunk-cabbage.

Here is the aforementioned spring. It's just a tiny woodland opening, well under a quarter-acre. Strong subterranean rills burst from the limey banks on the uphill side, keeping the spring perpetually saturated. The rough-stalked bluegrass, Poa trivialis, has already greened, helping to define the wettest areas. This place is a sog-fest, and a visitor better wear Wellies.

In spite of being February 20th - one full month in advance of the vernal equinox, our offical mark of spring - the skunk-cabbage was up in profusion. This trio of chubby little skunkers shows varying stages of development. The flower at bottom left is not quite prime. The center flower is in peak bloom, and the one on the right is past and withering. The little green rocketlike spike, foreground, is a leaf that is starting to unfurl.

We take a peek into the womb of a skunk-cabbage. The thick fleshy spathe enfolds a structure known as a spadix, visible in the gap between the turbanlike wrapping of the protective spathe. The flowers dot the spadix.

A closer view of the skunk-cabbage's reproductive parts. The minute greenish-white flowers are little more than dusty specks of tiny anthers. After maturity, the spadix will be a dense roundish spike of tightly packed greenish fruit - reminiscent of the fruit of a well known ally, the jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum.

I was surprised to see some leaves in this advanced stage of development. This leaf, while still scrolled, will soon expand to an impressive swath of tissue. Normally skunk-cabbage flowers bloom well in advance of the leaves, and have largely withered to nothingness by full leafout.

By May, the cabbage patch will look like this. No strange fleshy flowers to be found, only a sea of jumbo leaves. Numerous times I have been afield with skunk-cabbage illiterati, who have quite reasonably asked about the identity of the massive leaves. I usually suggest they pluck a piece of the foliage and take a whiff. Funny, nearly everyone quickly mentions the malodorous black and white mammal. Skunk-cabbage is well named, and not an ingredient for your potpourri bowl.

Homely as it may be, the emergence of skunk-cabbage marks true spring and the rush of life that will soon follow.

StumbleUpon.com

9 comments:

Diana said...

Nice pics, Jim. I can't believe how early the skunk cabbage is showing its face this year. We saw some poking up on Jan 29th here in SW Ohio! Crazy...

OpposableChums said...

Here in New England, it was 55 degrees yesterday, and we've got a few inches of snow today. Crazy...

Lilac Haven said...

Not too long until we see wood frogs either...

WisconsinWildMan said...

I'd been thinking the same thing about Spring until last night, we got 5+ inches of snow.

Scott (@NESASK) said...

Very interesting. Thanks. We're having a blizzard in Saskatchewan today, but nice to know hints of spring are showing somewhere.

Sharkbytes (TM) said...

Even in this goofy year, we need another month for the skunk cabbage to show up!

Nate said...

Jim,

Saw my foy Skunk cabbage on 2/9 this year in NE Ohio. Last week all of the skunk cabbage had been ripped open by turkey - have you ever observed this? I assume they must be going after insects?

I made a sketch of the scene and posted to my blog www.buroakbotanicals.blogspot.com

Nate

ps - I really enjoy your blog

Jim McCormac said...

I'm glad you enjoy the blog, Nate, and those are excellent sketches that you've made! No, I've never seen signs of turkey eating skunk-cabbage, and am not sure what they would be after. Perhaps they find the inner spadix to be a delicacy.

OpposableChums said...

"Perhaps they find the inner spadix to be a delicacy."

Don't we all...