As a child, I loved to romp in the swampy woods near my neighborhood. During winter, my friends and I would fearlessly traverse icy streams and frozen mud, taking shortcuts to favorite destinations like the local reservoir. As the upland woods and meadows lay dormant, these forested wetlands were the earliest places to come back to life.
Before the first robin or spring peeper appears, an odd plant, the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), heralds the coming of spring. Skunk cabbage can appear as early as February, often popping up through snow. In fact, respiration from skunk cabbage often creates enough heat to melt snow surrounding the plant.
This low-growing herbaceous plant is found in swamps, wet woods and stream borders. Its common name comes from the large, cabbage-like leaves and strong, fetid smell emitted when certain parts of the plant are touched or bruised. This odor is often described as similar to the smell of a skunk.
Chemicals present in the plant produce the unpleasant odor. Skatole is a crystalline compound that has a feces-like smell, and cadaverine is an organic compound produced as a result of decomposing bacteria on flesh. It is believed the plant uses this putrid smell to attract insects that specialize in scavenging dead and fecal matter. The insects, lured by the odor, help to pollinate the plant.
Skunk cabbage looks as odd as its smells. A purple-streaked hood, known as a spathe, wraps around and over the knob-shaped flower cluster known as a spadix. The spathe pokes through the ground and often through snow in February. By March or April, flesh-colored flowers appear on the spadix. Respiration of the spadix warms the surrounding air and the enveloping spathe helps to insulate the plant, creating a microclimate of constant warmth.
The flowers develop female parts first, beginning at the top of the spadix. By the time female flowers emerge at the bottom of the spadix, males parts have developed at the top. An opening of the spathe allows the entry and pollination by some of spring’s earliest flying insects, including flies and beetles.
After pollination, the spadix bends toward the ground and the spathe disintegrates. Large green leaves, rolled up, emerge on thick stalks. After unrolling, the leaves continue to grow, often becoming 2 feet long by summer. The spadix turns black and becomes a compound fruit. The large seeds are eaten by wood ducks (Aix sponsa) and game birds such as ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) and Northern bobwhite (Collinus virginianus).
Skunk cabbage ranges from parts of New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec, south to Virginia and west to eastern Minnesota and Iowa.
Another, more familiar plant is also found in damp woods and swamps. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) appears as early as March. It, too, sports a purple-and-green mottled spathe (the pulpit) enveloping a club-shaped spadix (the Jack) of male and female flowers. The spathe on this plant is more elegant; vase-shaped and tapering to a delicate point. Flowering occurs later than skunk cabbage, usually March through June.
The fruit, a cluster of red berries on the spadix, appears late in the summer through fall and is relished by ring-necked pheasant, wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). Jack-in-the-pulpit ranges from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
As a child, whenever I spied these odd-shaped plants poking out of the ground, I knew that spring was not far behind. The frozen shortcuts that I had become accustomed to throughout the winter would soon be gone. Temperatures would steadily climb, causing a gradual thaw. The ground would turn even soggier with rain.
I would no longer be able to traverse these wetlands, as the weight of my 12 years would surely cause me to sink into muck. Soon I would have to bypass the swamps and be content with the higher grounds of spring.