Monday, February 10, 2014

Our First Flower - Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage in bloom at Arlington's globally rare Magnolia Bog last week

The first flower to bloom every year can be found in our bogs and wet areas, sometimes blooming right through the snow as early as January. Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, goes by a variety of names, many dealing with its peculiar odor or large leaves in summer: Stinking Cabbage, Skunkweed, Meadow Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage, Fetid Hellebore, Midas Ears, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Collard, Polecat Weed, and Parson-in-the-pillory. Its unusual-looking flowers attract pollinators in two ways. First, the smell attracts carrion-loving insects like flies. Secondly, the heat it generates (strong enough to melt through snow and keep the flowers around 70 degrees F for a couple of weeks) is sought after by many insects because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and thus need the warmth. Colonies of these wetland obligate plants can last for centuries and individual plants are thought to be able to survive for up to 200 years.
The smell is thought to make the plants unappetizing to most animals (slugs and bears being an exception). But if that was not enough, the leaves are protected by calcium oxalate crystals, causing a chemical burn to anything consuming them. The chemical properties are eliminated by drying however, something many tribes learned so that they could make flour and otherwise eat them. There were many medicinal uses for them too. The Abnaki  for example used the large leaves to treat swelling and rheumatism. The Chippewa and Delaware used an infusion of the roots to treat coughs. The Micmacs believed the strong smell could relieve headaches. Many other tribes used them as a poultice for wounds and cuts. One of the more interesting uses was by the Menominee who used the powder mixed with dyes and inserted it into the flesh with animal teeth as a means of tattooing themselves.
For me, they are a reminder that winter will not last forever, and this unusual flower will triumph even through snow. They may provide early waking insects with one of the very few pollen sources out there, but they also serve as notice that other spring flowers will soon be on their way as well. 

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