Behold The Skunk Cabbage

Elwood Fisher

(The author of this article, brother Elwood Fisher, was born in Wetzel County, WV in 1926. He and his wife, Madge, worship at the Central church of Christ in Harrisonburg, VA. He was a professor of animal science at James Madison University for 31 years and retired in 1991. They have a daughter, Machelle, who lives in California with her husband, son, and daughter. Brother Elwood wrote an article entitled "Skunk Cabbage: One of God's Natural Wonders" several years ago for the Virginia Plant Society bulletin. This article is condensed and based upon that one.)

We know God by His gifts: written scriptures, music of our lips, prayer, fasting, meditation, and studying His marvelous creations.

The creation of the Skunk Cabbage is perhaps the most remarkable, curious, unique, and noteworthy in the plant world. It starts its reproductive cycle in the autumn, flowers in winter, stores food in springtime, and goes dormant in summer. Also, its flower is very atypical.

The plant that most people commonly call Skunk Cabbage grows naturally in fresh water bogs, marshes, swamps, or seasonally damp places. Its geographical range is from Nova Scotia, west through Ontario and Minnesota, then south to Iowa, and east to North Carolina, and, then, northward back to Nova Scotia.

Unfortunately, this plant, historically, has received at least 30 other common names. Furthermore, there are two other plants in the western U.S.A. that also have the common name of Skunk Cabbage.

Biologists, to avoid worldwide confusion, have given it the scientific name Symplocarpus

foetius, meaning "connected fruit that is evil smelling," and, indeed, it lives up to its name. It certainly did not inspire the phrase, "Take time to smell the flower."

This plant is often called the "Methuselah" of the plant world with an estimated life span of 1,000 years. I have not been able to confirm this age claim.

Visible growth starts in autumn as two types of buds appear under the water surface of a mucky bog. The flower bud, resembling praying hands, develops first and is called a spathe. Its camouflaged surface is pale green, mottled purple, reddish-brown, and rusty-yellow, resembling meat. The spathe envelops the spadix, a purplish colored spherical flower cluster with pistils and stamens, ready to be pollinated at maturity.

A leaf bud also grows from a stem-buried root and arises near the spathe. It is pale green, sharply pointed, and unfolds in a cabbage-like manner with leaves that will ultimately reach two feet in length by late spring.

At maturity (February in West Virginia), the spathe will be 5-6 inches tall with thick, spongy-like walls that look and act like Styrofoam. The mature spadix, ready to be pollinated, begins to release heat. Roger M. Knutson determined that heat comes from oxidized starch in the underground stem and is a byproduct of increased metabolism. The spadix now acts as a thermostat. With surrounding air well below freezing, the internal heat stays near 70 degrees F. constantly. Absolutely amazing and astonishing!

These unique thermal traits appear to have several functions. The spadix thaws the soil, allowing the shrunken lateral roots to extend and thereby push the spathe and developing leaf bud upward into a position more favorable for pollination. The increased heat promotes development of the reproductive organs and the release of volatile odors that will attract insect pollinators. Lastly, the flower will be prevented from freezing.

In winter, many animals die from starvation or are frozen. As carcasses decompose, they release heat and rancid odors, attracting flesh flies and carrion beetles. The heat, odor, and fleshy appearance of this plant resembles a decaying animal well enough to attract many pollinators to the spadix.

Once pollinated, the spadix develops seeds that bend the spathe to the ground where seeds are released.

Pharmaceutically, its extract is dracontium, a narcotic, toxic compound derived mainly from seeds and roots. Our native Indians had over 20 medicinal uses for it.

It was used for food only in emergencies. Roots and leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals that must be boiled twice to remove them. These microscopic crystals will cut the lining in the mouth and throat, causing them to enlarge and prevent breathing.

It seems illogical and mysterious that a plant bites back any animal that bites it, flowers in winter rather than summer, discharges a stinking, unpleasant odor, and has a camouflaged hood without pretty petals.

We are humbled by God's greatness and know that only His infinite wisdom could have created such a contradictory combination that works so well and lives as long as this plant, Symplocarpus foetidus, locally called Skunk Cabbage. 330 Paul St., Harrisonburg, VA 22801-3227.


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