No one ever proclaims skunk cabbage to be their favorite wildflower. At first glance, it’s even difficult to recognize the thing as a plant in bloom — or be sure which part is actually the flower.
Skunk cabbage’s flowers are small, inconspicuous and the disconcerting color of peeled flesh. Weird little blooms affixed to a thick, stubby spadix — rather obnoxious looking, itself — located inside a green-and-purple hood-like sheath called a spathe.
Doesn’t sound much like a wildflower — right?
Imaginative types can visualize skunk cabbage as being conjured up by a malevolent sorcerer amid the dank recesses of a dark cave. Or possibly think it some type of alien spawn left over from a visiting UFO.
Whenever I’ve pointed out skunk cabbage to someone unfamiliar with the strange little plants, their reaction was often disconcerted caution. Staring at a patch growing in the wet swale of a Midwest woods, many first-timers immediately ask if they’re poisonous or dangerous to touch.
Yet being decidedly odd looking is only half the story. There’s also the smell.
True, not all flowers are sweet scented. I learned this early-on thanks to the pretty yellow alyssums Mom grew near the back fence. They smelled downright obnoxious. And the white blooms on the haw tree which grew near the back porch weren’t very pleasant, either.
But skunk cabbage stinks on an entirely different level. Not that it will render you blind, bald and unconscious at fifty paces. But if your olfactory capabilities enable you to tell the difference between an apple pie and chocolate cookies baking in the oven, you’ll have no trouble catching a whiff.
To equate their fetid stench to the namesake animal frankly does skunks an undeserved disservice. Rather than overpoweringly musky, it’s more a nauseating effluvium — a mix of putrid meat and rotting garlic.
Why not ignore the plant entirely if it’s so stinky and bizarre?
Timing! Most years, skunk cabbage offers up the first wildflower bloom of the season. A natural indicator that, in spite of ice and cold and nasty weather, winter is coming to a close. Change is not only at hand, but already inching its way around the corner. And as the poet Mary Oliver astutely points out, “What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.”
Skunk cabbage is that trail-blazing true sign, an unlikely but absolutely reliable harbinger. When it comes to vernal reassurances, everyone loves a harbinger!
Nature writer John Burroughs observed how skunk cabbage “is ready to welcome and make the most of the first fitful March warmth.”
Henry David Thoreau counseled that anyone afflicted with winter’s melancholy should go into the swamps “and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage … already advancing toward the new year.”
I’m as big a sucker for harbingers as the next fellow. For years I’ve made at least one late-February or early-March trip to my favorite skunk cabbage patch. Though I do actually like this offbeat plant, I think it’s also fair to say that what I mostly seek on these annual quests is a personal reassurance of nature’s continuum.
We all need our signs and portents. Looking at a calendar is one thing. But calendars require faith. Touching an actual plant in bloom — even an ugly, stinky one — is an evidentiary act, an unassailable physical and tactile truth.
Some years when I make my pilgrimage, winter still has a lock-hold on the landscape. Yet more than once I’ve found the plants poking through any ice or snow covering the ground.
Skunk cabbage are thermogenic plants. A fancy way of saying they can generate their own heat through a process called cellular respiration. This can raise their temperature more than 60˚f above that of the surrounding air — melting any ice or snow that might otherwise trap the shoots under the earth.
Last week it was cold but dry — above freezing once the sun came out from behind the thick overcast. It’s easy to feel mildly disappointed during an early-season trek. The landscape still looks more wintery than springlike. Rather lifeless except for a few birds. Woods and fields are barren, mostly brown — you have to look close to find any greens or buds now starting to swell.
Yet bright clumps of tender onion grass shown like emerald pools through the woods. On a far hillside, red maples gleamed crimson. A weeping willow poured in yellow cascade beside the little creek.
There were redwings in the meadow, robins scratching under pasture cedars, ducks gabbling in the cattails of the small pond I passed along the way.
Eventually, I reached my boggy destination and spotted the purple-brown monk’s cowls of skunk cabbages poking above the mud. Dozens of flies were swarming around the plants, drawn by the fetid aroma.
I knelt on a handy log and reached out to touch the mottled outer spathe. The plant felt thick, leathery, warm. Bending close and peering inside, I could see the plant’s tiny lavender-pink flowers lining the interior spadix.
Their namesake odor was quite strong. Definitely not what you’d call a sweet perfume. Skunk cabbage is neither pretty nor fragrant—not even to an enthusiast of the unconventional.
Skunk cabbage earn their place on everyone’s list of favorite early wildflowers by being harbingers. The uplifting message is key, not the messenger.
Yet when I go afield in search of spring, finding a bunch of skunk cabbage in bloom is always a heartwarming sight. Seeing is believing, and these strange and stinky plants annually proclaim the best sort of seasonal news!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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