Cornelius' Corner:

"Stinky Wildflowers Rule!"

Cornelius’ Corner: “Stinky Wildflowers Rule!”

Happy Sunday, friends!

Lately I’ve really been enjoying the sunshine through my window, and I know I’m not the only one. There are lots of wildflowers popping up all over the park in shades of white, yellow, pink, and purple. However, my favorite wildflower is one that many people don’t even realize is a wildflower at all – Eastern Skunk Cabbage!

Skunk cabbage

Skunk cabbage is the earliest wildflower to bloom in the park each year, with blossoms often being seen by the end of February or the beginning of March. It blooms even before things like snowdrops or daffodils, and sometimes even blooms while there is still snow on the ground. This is because skunk cabbage roots can store lots of starches, which act as an energy source. As the flower grows, it uses the oxygen in the air to break apart those starches for energy. This molecular breakup creates energy as a byproduct, which in turn heats up the air around the plant. One plant can produce so much extra heat, it can raise the air temperature around it by 35° F!

Unlike many other flowering plants, skunk cabbage flowers sprout before the leaves. The spathe is a dark maroon mottled hood that emerges from the soil first, while the spadix is the round red or yellow ball inside the spathe.

The spadix is actually a large clump of petal-less flowers, and is the reason for this wildflower’s stinky name. Rather than being pollinated by butterflies or bees, skunk cabbage relies on flesh flies, carrion flies, carrion beetles, and various gnats to transport its pollen. These species all feed on decomposing animals, so the flowers smell like something dead in order to attract them. Unfortunately, if you bruise or crush the plant you will get a big whiff of that stinky perfume, too!

As the plant matures, the flower is joined by large green leaves arranged in a vase-type pattern. A single plant can grow quite large – up to 2 or 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide. The pollinated flowers mature into berry-like fruits that are eaten by wood ducks and other birds. Meanwhile, snails and slugs are just about the only things that enjoy eating the leaves. Interestingly, while the leaves die back every fall, individual plants can actually live for up to 20 years!

Skunk cabbage grows best in wet, saturated soils in partial shade and is especially common in marshy woods and floodplains. Here in the park, they are easy to see at the Frog Pond and in the wet meadows that border the Creek Trail. Be sure to look out for these strange flowers as you visit, and take some pictures to share with your friendly neighborhood corn snake!

– Cornelius

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