Friday, February 27, 2009

A Skunk, not a Robin, is the True Sign of Spring

Many people believe if they spot American Robins in their yard, spring is on the way. Actually, a type of skunk is the first sign of spring.

No, not that kind of skunk!

This kind of skunk-Skunk-cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. It is one of the earliest wildflowers that pushes its odd-looking gnome's hat through the mucky ground of wetlands in late February and early March. The structure that looks like a gnome's hat is called a spathe.Skunk-cabbage is a common North American member of the Arum Family(Araceae). The largest member of this family is the spectacular Titan Arum from Sumatra, while the smallest is the tiny duckweed that floats on many of our ponds. Another member of the Arum Family many plant enthusiasts may be familiar with is the Peace Lily, a favored indoor plant.

These amazing plants are thermogenic; they can generate their own heat. The internal temperature of the spathe on Skunk-cabbage can reach temperatures well over 70 degrees F! Skunk-cabbage also produces foul-smelling chemicals called putrescine and cadaverine. They conjure the smells of death or putrifying flesh. The putrid smell plus the warmth attracts beetles and flies. These insects pollinate the tiny flowers found upon the ball-like spadix contained within the maroon spathe.

Above is a closeup of the spadix with the tiny flowers evenly spaced over the surface.

Soon the spathe and spadix will begin to wither and the furled leaves push through the mucky soil. In mid-summer and fall, a 2-3 inch oval fruit, shaped like a brain, will form. Inside, one will find ten to fourteen smooth, round seeds.

In late spring and early summer, the giant leaves of Skunk-cabbage can reach lengths of 20 inches and can measure 16 inches wide. When crushed, they also produce a pungent odor similar to a skunk. Native Americans would crush the petioles of the leaves containing the chemical calcium oxalate and apply to the skin to help heal deep bruises. If ingested, this chemical produces a sensation of hot, burning needles that can last for hours. This helps deter animals from eating the plant.
Look for Skunk-cabbage in wet woods and swamps. You can find the spathe and spadix in February and March and the leaves in early spring and throughout the summer.

The end.

(Photos of robin, skunk and skunk-cabbage leaves from Wikipedia)


  1. are a silly gal...Very nice informative post! Great slide show!
    Hope to say hello some day if we ever get to your neck of the woods!

  2. Oh ..and thanks for the link on your blogroll..
    though, I have to say I do feel a bit strange when people add me to their bird blogroll or nature blogroll..because I really don't consider myself knowledgeable in either subject...just a voyeur in the nature world..looking and sometimes learning...
    I also post family and freind stuff that might not be considered nature..well ha..i guess we are all nature...
    but you get what i mean...
    i might best be blogrolled under the label
    some of this some of that but not enough of it all...tee hee..
    But this is your as you will!

  3. Hi Dawn,

    Thanks for all the help with the slideshow. Yes, I can be pretty silly. And you have plenty of nature stuff on your blog. Wigeons today. And lots of cool adventures. I hope someday to travel and see many of the places you have visited.

  4. lol I like "the end"! very creative ending photo! I'll "follow" you, hope you don't mind ;)