Most of the plants I took for examples exist in my home garden on Detroit's east side. These was one plant, however, that I had tried to grow (as yet) unsuccessfully that I wanted to discuss - Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symploycarpus foetidus), a plant with very specific, difficult to replicate, cultural needs. Not surprisingly, this plant is not something you just "happen upon" on a casual stroll through your neighborhood.
Why would I want to grow this plant? Well, there are lots of reasons. First, I've become something of an obsessive native plant "collector" - partly for my own satisfaction but also in an effort to introduce as many people as I can to as many native plants as I can at my semi-annual garden tours - everything from native Michigan Eastern Prickly-Pear Cactus to water-loving Marsh Marigold. Plus, I'm not one to shrink from a horticultural challenge - and growing Skunk Cabbage is challenging. And then there's the idea of having a "zoo" garden - a garden of plants with animal names - including Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea) and Goat's Rue (Tephrosia virginiana), among many, many others. (I may do a post on those yet!) Plus, it's one of the coolest plants you'll ever see.
Cool? How could a plant called "Skunk Cabbage" be cool? Well, one of the very "coolest" things about Eastern Skunk Cabbage is that, through a chemical reaction, it is able to generate temperatures of up to 95ºF warmer than the surrounding atmosphere, making it one of a very few plants capable of thermogenesis (creating its own heat). It isn't unusual to see the plant's clumps emerging right up out of the snow as it creates little "islands" of heat.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage is one of five species within its genus. Although both are members of the Aroid family, Western, or Yellow, Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is of a different genus. (Both genera have species native to North America and Asia.) Its nearest relatives in Michigan include Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium) and the ever-popular Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).
The first part of the common name, as well as the second part of its Botanical Latin name, refers to the plant's strong musty odor (especially noticeable when the plant is crushed), which attracts early-season pollinators, including flies, stoneflies and bees; the scent may also discourage larger animals from disturbing it. The leaves, which are quite cabbage-like, emerge after the plant has flowered.
The flowering bodies of all members of the Aroid family (referred to as "Araceae") - including such floral favorites as the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum), Calla Lily (Zantedeschia æthiopica) and Anthurium spp. - consist of two parts: the "spathe" - a large bract forming a sheath - around the "spadix", or flower cluster, which actually contains the plant's reproductive parts. The spathe (note the Botanical Latin name for Peace Lily, in which both the genus and epithet contain forms of the word "spathe") protects the reproductive parts of the plant from the elements, assisting in more successful pollination. The heat generated by the plant may also help better spread its distinctive odor while making for an attractively warm haven for any passing pollinators.
Like the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, there is quite a bit of variation in the spathe's coloring, although it is always a combination of burgundy and mustard yellow. More frequently mostly burgundy, the balance between the two colors varies widely, even within a single clump.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage is a wet-land obligate - meaning that it must have wetland conditions to survive. It does like a certain amount of sun and benefits from late winter/early spring exposure in deciduous woods, when there is little leaf cover while it flowers. It also has contractile roots, which actually pull the plant further into the ground as it grows - so the crown is always at the surface while the root system drives down further into the soil, making it difficult - if not impossible - to transplant.
Seeds are born in a club-like structure, most of which eventually rots away, leaving the seeds to fall into the surrounding mud to be dispersed by animals or seasonal flooding.
When I first decided to include this plant in my article on seed dispersal, the first issue was finding someplace to photograph it. I contacted a number of folks in my native plant network who suggested a number of possible locations, including Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden, Michigan. My photographer, Don, and I took a drive up that way on April 2 and found a sizable colony in full bloom behind the main building. Some clumps were still surrounded by snow and the ground, though beginning to thaw, was still fairly firm.
We spent the better part of two hours out there - despite dropping temperatures, increasing cloud cover and rising winds. (One very good thing about photographing this plant: no matter how windy, it stays perfectly still!) We took numerous frames - Don calling the shots; I assisting in whatever ways I could. Finally, my hands started getting blue (I had left my jacket in the car as it seemed pretty nice out when we left the parking area!), so Don gave me his jacket. We found the plants utterly captivating, finding one vignette after another to further "explicate" this unusual plant, capturing each blossom's unique form, the transition of the seasons around us and the complexity of the natural community in which they exist.
I'm now thinking of ways to recreate these beautiful forms in clay, from the jug-like spathe and complex spadix to the subtle shading of burgundy and mustard yellow. I also hope we'll have the opportunity to further document its annual cycle later this season.