Spring's First Flower
Savoring skunk cabbage
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the March, 2017 issue
Although we cherish the benefits and beauties of a four-season climate, there comes a time when we look for signs of spring. This month we start searching for spring wildflowers.
March might seem a little early to be on the prowl for posies. But while it's not a traditional bloom, we most likely will see some flowering skunk cabbage this month. Given the warm spells this year, some of it may already be in bloom.
Our photo shows the plant in early spring. The bloom consists of a "spathe"--the outer, hood-like structure--and a "spadix"--the inner cylindrical core. The spadix holds the actual flowers, which look like tiny dots. Later in the year both spathe and spadix will die back, and cabbage-looking leaves will appear.
Skunk cabbage's name may be off-putting--we prefer "swamp cabbage"--but its physical structure is pure fantasy art and its internal chemistry is extraordinary. All three experts we consulted--Becky Gajewski of Ann Arbor's Natural Area Preservation; Faye Stoner of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation; and David Michener, of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum--pointed out that flowering skunk cabbage will burn its way through snow.
The enveloping structure of the plant captures and holds in heat, but Michener explains that it also creates its own heat by breaking down starches in the base of the structure. The heat lets the flower penetrate the snow and helps attract flies that pollinate it. The other attractant is the plant's smell: stinky to us, it apparently smells sweet to flies.
Michener notes that "some degree of evil smell" is characteristic of skunk cabbage's relatives, which include philodendrons. Most members of the family are tropical; skunk cabbage isn't, but it creates its own warm environment with its internal chemical space heater.
What to look for? Mottled maroons, greens, and yellows; twisted spirals; and pointed and flat tops, typically in marshy, boggy, and wetland areas. We like to look for them in places where a boardwalk keeps the environment pristine and
NAP's Gajewski suggests looking along the river at the northern end of Argo Nature Area, in Barton Nature Area, and in Gallup Park, as well the ravine at the center of Kuebler Langford Nature Area and the Forest Nature Area at the southern end of Parker Mill Park. We have also found cabbage along the path in Furstenberg Nature Area, adjacent to Gallup's parking lot off Fuller Rd.
County naturalist Stoner recommends the Hoyt Post Trail boardwalk in Parker Mill Park. She also suggests Osborne Mill Preserve, where the trail gets close to the river's edge. And Miller-Smith Preserve "has LOTS of skunk cabbage and is fairly easily seen by taking the trail in the preserve to the west until you come to the only little bridge we have in the entire preserve."
We haven't actually put our noses down into skunk cabbage to experience the smell; we are content to savor the sweet sight of spring in the making.
[Originally published in March, 2017.]
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