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The first wildflower

The hood of a skunk cabbage unfurls.
TRR photo by Kristin Barron

April 16, 2014

A “fetid herb” is botanist Homer D. House’s perfect description in his 1934 book “Wild Flowers,” of our first wild plant to flower in spring.

To be sure, my daughter and I smelt this plant before we saw the cowl—like flowers peeking up through the muck of the wet, forest floor. Skunk cabbage, a sure sign of spring, is now in bloom in our local swamps and wet woods.

Following my cousin Robert Dirig’s detailed directions recorded 37 years ago, Lily and I found a patch of this intriguing woodland denizen this past Sunday along Old Route 17, west of the Riverview Cemetery in Hancock, NY.

I had never seen skunk cabbage before—it is a bit uncommon locally. But thanks to Bob’s meticulous instructions, we walked right to the patch he had discovered in 1977. Patches are said to survive in the same spots for up to a century.

There they were—like alien beings sprung from the mother ship. The plant’s tiny flowers are clustered on a club-shaped spike inside a hooded maroon, green and yellow mottled sheath called a “spathe.” The flowers emerge before the leaves, which appear in later spring and grow to the size of rhubarb leaves.

You could say this plant has “powers,” too (adding to its B-film allure). The plant is capable of generating its own heat, a phenomenon known as thermogenesis. The plant can maintain temperatures of up to 15 to 35 degrees above air temperature even when the surrounding temperature is below freezing. This plant can actually melt the snow around itself. Although thermogenesis is rare in plants, it occurs in some species of the Arum (onion) family, of which the skunk cabbage is a member. The flower’s dark coloring may also contribute “dark-body radiation,” as tree trunks do, to melt snow at the foot. The reason for all this heat, of course, is to attract pollinators. The plant’s repellent odor also helps to attract insects for pollination even if it sends us running.

The dried rootstocks of skunk cabbage can be used to make a cocoa-like flour that can be eaten, according to the Peterson field guide, “Edible Wild Plants.” However, the plant’s leaves must be thoroughly dried to be of any use as food. Apparently eating the raw plant can cause a burning feeling in the mouth. Strangely enough, native tribes are said to have used the plant as an underarm deodorant as well as for medicinal purposes.

It is important to remember that skunk cabbage can be confused with the poisonous leaves of false hellebore, an early spring plant that sometimes grows side by side with skunk cabbage.