One of the things I enjoyed most while hiking the Appalachian Trail was watching spring emerge.
Each day as I hiked along ridges, valleys and woods, I saw plants and wildflowers spring up from the ground beneath my feet. Tiny spring beauties carpeted the forest floor, ferns unrolled their delicate fiddleheads and trees once so bare and gray were suddenly painted with tiny green leaves so bright they almost looked fluorescent!
But before these exquisite plants came I into view, another less adored plant heralded the coming of spring, the odd-looking the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). One of the first plants to surface, skunk cabbage can appear as early as February, often popping up through snow.
Skunk cabbage is a low-growing herbaceous plant found in swamps, wet woods and stream borders. The common name comes from the plant’s large, cabbage-like leaves and strong, fetid smell emitted when certain parts of the plant are touched or bruised. This smell 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 mimics 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 in February, and 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.
In fact, respiration from a skunk cabbage often creates enough heat to melt any snow surrounding the plant.
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 entry and pollination by some of the earliest flying insects. A variety of insects, including flies and beetles, pollinate skunk cabbage. Because it is such as an early flowering plant, skunk cabbage may be one of the first pollen sources for honey bees.
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 and game birds such as pheasant, grouse and bobwhite quail.
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 pheasant, turkey and wood thrush.
Jack-in-the-pulpit ranges from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
When I spied these odd-shaped plants peaking out of the ground, I knew that spring was not far behind. The frozen lower paths would soon be gone. Temperatures steadily climbed and I, too, climbed with them.
The ground turned soggier with rain. But that was OK because I knew that soon my world would explode with brighter colors of wildflowers and a chorus of warblers.
Soon I would be hiking in spring.