February in Ohio brings the first sightings of a native plant that is bizarre enough to belong in a Chiller Theater movie. I know – I am showing my age!
Those of you who grew up in central Ohio may fondly remember begging your parents to stay up late on Friday nights watching scary movies with a friend or sibling so you could share the terror.
The native plant, eastern skunk cabbage, is so weird that it could easily be the bad guy in one of those horror films.
The common name of the plant is a giveaway as to one of its quirks. Broken or bruised leaves and the flowers give off a disgusting smell which has been described as similar to skunk or rotten meat (or my brother’s work boots at the end of the day).
The scientific name, Symplocarpus foetidus, is another indicator that the plant smells putrid. Foetidus comes from the Latin word “foetere,” to stink. Believe it or not, the stench is beneficial to the plant because it lures bees and flies that act as pollinators.
Another oddity of the skunk cabbage is that it emits warmth. This time of year you can take a hike around a wetland, stream corridor or wet woods, the plant’s preferred habitat, and you will see the speckled brownish-purple and green flowering parts emerging from the snow. Skunk cabbages bloom from late January through mid-March with a hood called a spathe completely hiding the spandex, a globe-like cluster of flowers within.
The heat is a product of chemical activity associated with the maturation of the many tiny flowers. Sometimes the temperature can reach 60 degrees in the spathe when the outside temperatures are below freezing, melting the surrounding snow. This ability for an organism to raise its own temperature is called thermogenesis, a feature of only a handful of plants. This heat also may disperse the distinctive funk as the warm air rises from the plant, enticing early pollinators to visit.
A third eerie feature of the skunk cabbage is its contractile roots that allow some mobility. Large tentacle-like roots radiate from the leafstalks downward and essentially act as an auger, constantly screwing the entire plant into the ground at a rate of a few millimeters a year. The roots of a mature plant, which can be two to three feet long, are said to be so massive that digging them out is impossible. Besides, who would want to do such a thing anyway? Such a task would result in damaging the leaves which would then release the ghastly smell. Need I say more?
Native Americans used skunk cabbage for many medicinal purposes; however, the whole plant is high in calcium oxalate. This naturally occurring compound causes an unpleasant burning sensation of the mouth and tongue if strict preparation techniques are not followed. One source likened the sensation in the mouth and digestive tract as if “several hundred needles have been stuck in these places.” Yikes, no thank you!
While snails, slugs, spiders, carrion beetles, gnats, flies and others are not deterred by the malodorous fumes, most animals shy away from skunk cabbage. Bears and snapping turtles are two notable exceptions and can sometimes be seen munching on the plant in early spring.
If your new year’s resolutions include adding more physical activity and getting outdoors, you can do both while learning about the eastern skunk cabbage. Join staff of Preservation Parks of Delaware County for a “Skunk Cabbage Hike” on Sunday, Feb. 21, at 1 p.m. at Shale Hollow Park. Seeing the skunk cabbage up close and witnessing its freakish characteristics may give you a shiver up your spine, just like Chiller Theater!
Visit www.preservationparks.com or call 740-524-8600 for more information. The Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District’s website lists a host of upcoming programs as well as copies of recent newsletters at www.delawareswcd.org.
Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.