Sunday, March 14, 2010

Skunk Cabbage: The First Flower of Spring

The First Flower of Spring begins to bloom while winter is still strong. Since February, skunk cabbage buds have appeared like little monks sticking up out of the wetlands. The little hood is called a spathe and it appears either reddish or mottled. Under this protective hood is a little club called a spadix. On it are numerous, tightly packed petal-less yellow flowers. Amazingly when the plant is in flower, it produces a great deal of heat. Inside the spathe it could be 20 degrees warmer then the outside. This accounts for its ability to melt its way up through the snow or ice. The skunk-like odor that gives the plant its name, is an important adaptation. Nature's earliest pollinators are small flies and other insects that are mainly carrion eaters.
The shape of the spathe plus the plant's heat creates an inviting warm draft which smells like dinner to them. Once they venture inside, the spathe provides a cozy dinning space. For several weeks, this process goes on until the spadix's flowers are pollinated and the blossom begins to wilt. As it starts to wilt, the leave bud - the green point next to the spathe in the picture, begins to unfurl into the largest leaves in the wetlands. By the time the crocuses are blooming, most skunk cabbage blossoms have long passed.

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