It is March and the wetlands in the northeast U.S. are still frozen. The landscape is gray with leafless trees and shrubs. The ground is covered with decaying leaves, pockets of ice and in some places snow. Yet for as bleak as this environment looks, the first sign of spring appears. Flower heads of skunk cabbage are pushing through the ice-bound ground. This plant does what very few plants are capable of; it generates heat through a process called thermogenesis which thaws the frozen ground it lives in.
Skunk cabbage is aptly named. Every part of this plant reeks with the smell of a revengeful skunk. Flies, attracted to this putrid odor, travel from flower to flower where pollen hitchhikes on the insects’ legs and is carried from one flower to another for the important process of pollination.
As the spring sun warms the wetland soil, the leaves of the skunk cabbage plant poke through the ground. The leaves grow and expand and take advantage of the sun’s energizing rays that easily reach the forest floor. Skunk Cabbage has to grow now to survive. Once the days are long enough to trigger the taller plants to sprout leaves casting shade on the forest floor, the skunk cabbages’ days are numbered.
Although a stinky plant, it is a welcome sight. Like the return of the robin after the long winter, skunk cabbage is a harbinger of spring as it provides reassurance that winter is waning and spring is on the horizon.