Currently we live in suburbia, on the edge of where city meets farmland and eventually where farmland meets forests. Usually edges in nature are rich places where there is a extreme amount of diversity and interaction among species. You’ll find that creatures tend to move more on the edge of night and day for example and on the edge of field and forest. You’ll also find the greatest diversity among plants there. But here in suburbia our interactions are limited to our zoning laws, and plants and animals are left with little space to exist. We don’t, for example, tend to zone in a network of forested zones where animals can travel freely and where even the open fields are ecosystems themselves rich in biodiversity. City folk prefer their manicured lawns instead and are content with the house cat and the landscaped garden.
Still there are places here, where the “dandelion-pushing-through-the-concrete-effect” is observed and where structures old and outdated have been demolished by the still wild growth of trees and the co-opting of wildlife . . .
and there are the parks.
The park near us in particular is about 15 wooded acres, which isn’t a whole lot but is much bigger than some, and it has a river running through it, which makes it an edge, where field meets forest meets water. For the past two days I’ve walked to this park with my kids to play . . .
and to explore . . .
In the coming months, I want to feature some of the plants and animals that we find here, species that use this place as a sort of an oasis of wilderness in the concrete desert of suburbia, but there is one in particular that I would like to discuss now, a plant I find very exciting. It is . . .
The Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
The skunk cabbage has the distinct smell of meat gone bad. It is part of family of plants called the Arums, many of which have this distinguishing smell. Here in Michigan we also have two other plants that are part of this family growing here: Jack in the pulpit and Sweet Flag. Sweet Flag is edible and medicinal, but from what I know, Jack in the pulpit is not. Skunk Cabbages, and some other Arums, use this unique and very potent smell to attract cold-hardy carrion flies and beetles to their flowers for pollination.
The skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to break through ice in the early spring. The flower, the purple part seen below, emerges before the leaves. This flower contains a club-like structure within it that has the ability to melt snowbanks and ice by taking in oxygen and then, oxygenating sugars that are derived from the plants extensive root system. This allows the inside of the flower to heat up to 60-75 degrees fahrenheit even while the outside air is only slightly above freezing .
This heating-up of the inside of the flower actually gives the plant several advantages. It allows for the skunk cabbage to flower, pollinate, seed and photosynthesize before the deciduous trees which it grows beneath leaf out, similar to the spring ephemerals. Also, it encourages the waft of its rotting perfume to go further than it otherwise would, hence having more chance that insects will find it and pollinate it. Lastly, it provides shelter for these insects, so that they can stay warm despite the cold outside temperatures. The flower is curved so that the warm air circulates within the plant, rising and falling according to the temperature outside, which also allows for the plant to regulate this temperature somewhat.
I suspect that the insects that pollinate the skunk cabbage also lay their eggs within it, just as they would if they were consuming a carcass. The eggs then would fall to the forest floor after the flower had died. This would allow for new insects to be very near the skunk cabbage the next spring, but I’m not sure if this is the case or not.
Skunk cabbage roots are eaten when cooked or dried, according to pfaf.org, a site that catalogs uses of perennial plants. The Iroquois used the cooked young leaves and shoots as a food as well, according to Moerman in his Native American Ethnobotany.But the plant contains a high amount of calcium-oxylate crystals that are poisonous and active when the plant is raw, and I’ve read other places that it was used primarily as a famine food and certainly wasn’t preferred. For this reason, I wouldn’t suggest eating it. The Iroquois also used an infusion of the root for an underarm deoderant, according to Moerman, and traditionally the plant has been used as a soothe to the nerves.
Mice could eat the seed of the skunk cabbage, there have been accounts of this in related species, and Thoreau gives an off-handed account of this in his book on Wild Fruits. Geese, Wood ducks, and deer are also said to eat the leaves, and black bear apparently eat the whole plant. Typically this plant is found in wet areas, in hardwood forests, which is where we found it, alive and abundant, despite being in the middle of suburbia.
I like this quote from Thoreau, if only because it shows the richness and untapped potential of the wild world around us. He’s talking about skunk cabbage here, the fruit of which some in his day called the northern pineapple because it kind of looks like one (though much smaller):
“When the mower lays bare the ground in some low meadow in the latter part of July–he is surprised to find that Nature has already matured so sizable a fruit there–before he had anything ripe or so large to show in his gardens or homes.”
I’m thinking of interplanting skunk cabbage with some other more edible variety of plant (low-bush blueberries?) someday to see if maybe I can earlier get an earlier fruiting. If it’s heating up snowbanks, it’s quite possible that it would also provide heat to plants around it and help them to flower and fruit earlier. That way instead of laying bare the ground, I’m using its genius to benefit my garden. I’ll let you know what I find out.