Sunday, February 24, 2013

The skunks burst forth - it is offically spring!

A springy quagmire a mere seven minutes from my house, and a place to which I make an annual pilgrimage each year to confirm spring's arrival. I know that I write about this every year, but I cannot help myself. This has been a long wintry winter, and I and many other northern tundra-boys and girls eagerly seek out definitive signs of spring.

Speaking of the title of this post, and skunks, the mammalian form is also in full spring fever. You'll be smelling their pungent musk frequently, and seeing the aftermath of skunks who were unsuccessful in crossing the road. But this story is about Skunk-cabbage.

The aforementioned boggy spring is Kiwanis Park, and I was there this morning to document the full-fledged emergence of the Skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. I was at this spot for other purposes back on January 16, and was shocked to see that at least one of the Skunk-cabbage plants was already in full bloom. That one jumped the gun by a longshot; today, hundreds of plants were up and the colony was at or near its peak of bloom.

If you are a plant bold enough to thrust from the mire in February, it helps to be thermogenic. Skunk-cabbage produce their own heat as a by-product of growth, and the immediate environs of an actively growing skunk is plenty warm enough to melt away the snow and ice.

A luxuriant passel of Skunk-cabbage. Each of those curious fleshy conical spathes harbors the flowers. The purple and green hoods provide a toasty warm tent that shields the pollen-producing parts from the often much chillier conditions outside. It might be several dozen degrees warmer inside the spathe! While Skunk-cabbage's choice of habitat often limits who might see them - casual hikers tend to avoid boot-sucking quagmires in late winter - I'm sure the unititated occasionally stumble into them. I wonder what someone who has no idea of their existence thinks when they clap eyes on a flowering skunker. Probably think it's a weird fungus of some sort, rather than a close relative of one of our most beloved spring wildflowers, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum.

Proof of flowering is in the pollen, as botanist Daniel Boone would say. To see the true flowers of Skunk-cabbage, one must peek through the flap in the spathe. If you do, this is what you will see. The oblong-shaped club is the spadix, which is littered with the tiny greenish flowers. Look closely and you'll see pollen grains on the flowers and the surface of the spadix.

The blooming and leafout of Skunk-cabbage is largely asynchronous: the leaves do not emerge and reach full luxuriance until after the flowers are done and withered. Only a few leaves were in the early stages of unfurling today. Come back later in spring and it'll resemble a well fertilized cabbage garden in this spot.

The botanical skunks long get the jump on more traditional wildflowers. This raggedly looking rosette of Swamp Buttercup, Ranunculus hispidus, leaves was growing with the Skunk-cabbage, but it'll be two months or so before their glossy lemon-yellow flowers show themselves. The birds know that spring is here, though. Well making my photos, I was serenaded by Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Northern Flickers, Song Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and others.

While it may only be late February, now that the Skunk-cabbage are at the pinnacle of bloom, there is no denying the impending Spring.


Candace said...

Your skunk cabbage variety is very different from the one we see here in the Seattle area. Since yours are up, I imagine ours are too. I'll have to take a look this week!

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Candace, I am green with envy! Yours would be the Western Skunk-cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, and they are cool looking plants indeed! I would love to wallow in a patch of those, camera in hand, someday!

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