Thursday, February 09, 2006


I took a walk today on an unfamiliar trail in the nature preserve where I work. On my way home I decided to stop, on a whim, so I could hunt for the "first flower of the new year", as it is often called, and see what stage of "bloom" it was in. Skunk cabbage is a wild and exotic plant that grows here in many of Ohio's wet areas and flood plains...thrusting itself out of the cold or snow-covered ground every late winter around February.

After a few minutes down the path, I headed toward the tan sea of cattail stalks from last year's growth. Soon I was side-stepping what looked like little, red torches popping up everywhere from the mucky ground. These "torches" are actually spathes and they protect the ball of flowers which grow inside them. It is the spathe that traps heat generated from the plant's transpiration, and creates a micro-climate, up to 20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, making it, in a sense, a real torch.

Skunk cabbage goes through several dramatic changes in form, texture, color and smell during it's lifetime. I noticed that some of the smooth spathes were red, some were green and some were mottled. There were several large clumps of 10 or more emerging around a small spring which looked like they had been coming up in that same hidden spot for decades.
The spathes attract pollinating insects (carrion flies, honeybees, etc) with the smell of rotting meat...hence the unflattering name.

After the flower is pollinated, a cluster of leaves, which I think looks more like collard greens than what we think of as cabbage, grows up next to the spathe and remains through the summer and fall. Eventually, the large, deep green leaves die back, turn a golden-brown resemblinng tobacco and fall to the ground

We may not have the warm seasons of the south or west coast but we do have four distinct and glorious seasons in Ohio, each with their own beauty and even their beastly traits at times. Up until now you may have thought that October's mums, primroses and pumpkins were the last colorful hurrah until March ephemerals spring up...but you would have been wrong. Seems as though just November, December and January are our only truly flower-free months!

If you have a park or nature preserve near you with a wetland and trail access to a patch of skunk cabbage, I urge you to go and learn about this strange plant and its folklore. Do it on a whim.