I am very excited to bring you another post about an amazing native plant. It has been blooming time for the skunk cabbage for a while now but the rain and the job have held be back from getting out and taking photos. This morning I finally had a chance.
Though the skunk cabbage has a reputation for its pungent smell and is a ubiquitous and perhaps overlooked species around the
The skunk cabbage grows in wet areas, streams, ponds, wet woods, and these buds can often be seen pushing up through ice or snow. How this happens is probably the most amazing feature of the plant. The skunk cabbage actually produces its own heat in much the same way as a warm blooded animal. It only does this at the beginning of its life cycle for about two weeks but can raise the temperature by up to 20 degrees Celsius.
above: the skunk cabbage buds
The roots of the skunk cabbage contain a large supply of starches which are broken down in a biochemical reaction that also consumes oxygen (that’s right, the plant consumes oxygen). These reactions produce the heat that allows the skunk cabbage to be one of the first plants to bloom each spring. Studies have shown that the plant consumes about the same amount of oxygen and produces about the same amount of heat as a mammal of the same size. I think the fact that there are “warm blooded” plants is really a bizarre and fascinating one; even more fascinating that these processes are taking place in plants that are so common in the northeast.
The consumption of oxygen also produces an air current which carries the carrion odor compounds also made by the plant. This twin process spreads the smell of the plant out across its habitat to reach its pollinators: mostly carrion-feeding flies. Scientists have found the same compounds in the skunk cabbage’s family as in actual carrion. These compounds have great names like putrescine and cadavarine.
I managed to find some skunk cabbages still budding this morning so you probably still have time to experience its amazing heat production capacity this year. Go out to a wet area and you should be able to find the plant. If you stick your finger just inside the spathe you will notice that your finger warms noticeably. I really can’t get over how amazing these plants are.