Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Skunk Cabbage

Looks like a bumper crop of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) this spring.  I have a lot of wetlands (swamps) around my house and they're loaded with thousands of healthy-looking green plants.

For those who don't know, skunk cabbage is named for the pungent odor released when you rip or crush a leaf.  The odor attacts pollinators like flies which are drawn to the stench.  One plant in the same family as the skunk cabbage is known as the "carrion flower" or "corpse flower" (Amorphophallus titanum), for obvious reasons.  Spectacular flower, but having your garden smell like a corpse is a definite downside.

Two interesting things about skunk cabbage.  The first is that they are capable of thermogenesis - they can generate their own heat (as much as 15-35° C above ambient air temperature!).  This allows the plant to sprout and flower when the surrounding ground is still frozen.  The second is that they have contractile roots.  These are roots that contract and are slowly pulling the plant deeper into the mud (they grow in swamps, remember).  After a few years, the plants have huge root systems making them practically impossible to dig up.

Because of these contractile roots, it's been claimed that skunk cabbages can survive for hundreds of years as long as their area doesn't dry out or stay flooded for too much of the year - they're basically an edge of wetlands plant.

Skunk cabbage did have some medicinal uses amongst Native Americans but is generally not considered edible since the roots are toxic and the leaves supposedly burn your mouth (given their smell, I can't imagine anyone wanting to eat them).

When I was in British Columbia last June, we did a little walk on the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail at Mount Revelstoke National Park.  The actual conversation was something like "Look, they have a skunk cabbage boardwalk trail.  Cool, let's stop!"  Some families go to Disneyland, we take walks in skunk cabbage wetlands.

This is actually western skunk cabbage, a slightly different species (Lysichiton americanus).  Both species, however, belong to the same subfamily (Orontioideae) of the Araceae family of plants.  Western skunk cabbage is supposedly a bit more edible and bears apparently eat the roots for its laxative effects after emerging from hibernation.

The surrounding view, by the way, was pretty impressive...

That's Mount Revelstoke above a field of equisetum (another interesting plant I'll have to write about in the future).  While I do love the Hudson Valley of New York, I really do miss places like British Columbia and wish I could spend more time there!

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