Skunk cabbage

Enjoy these mysterious old souls.

The skunk cabbage's rank smell keeps large mammals, like us, away, but it attracts insects. —Laura Wainwright

Do me a favor. Close your eyes.

Picture a place you like on the Island where fresh water flows freely. Yes, I know, it’s still winter. Trees and shrubs are bare. The dead leaves rustle under your feet, but for the past six weeks, something extraordinary has been happening along these waterways, and you need to see it. Skunk cabbage is muscling its way out of the ground and beginning to bloom. You heard me. Skunk cabbage: Symplocarpus foetidus, or fetid flower.

Don’t wait. Put on a pair of rubber boots, slip on your jacket, and go. An easy place to see this perennial wildflower is the Waskosim’s Rock Land Bank property off North Road. Just a few hundred yards along the trail, you’ll find yourself on a hunk of stone crossing the Tiasquam River. Yes, it looks more like a stream, but stand here, and look.

Stare awhile. Soon two or three sensuous, wine-red leaves thrusting their sharp points out of the mud will catch your eye.

Look again. These harbingers of spring everywhere. Notice how the leaves at first are burgundy, but as they begin to grow, become mottled with green.

They’re beautiful. Don’t you agree?

You may need to step into the mud or the water to get close to one of the plants, but trust me. It’s worth it.

Squat down.

Feel a sharp tip.

Run your hands along a leaf.

When did you last feel something so smooth, turgid, strong, solidly alive? This is a special kind of leaf — called a spathe — which nature has modified to enclose a hidden flower. Gently pry the leaves apart. Peek inside. In what looks like a tiny yellow pinecone will grow, maybe now are growing, tiny yellow flowers.

Who pollinates these tiny beauties? Early spring bugs: flies, beetles, and bees. Crush a small piece of spathe and smell your fingers.

Funky, right?

Now the scent is subtle, but soon it will be strong. This rank smell keeps large mammals, like us, away, but it attracts insects. Thinking they’re investigating a rotting corpse, an insect unwittingly enters the spathe, brushes against the flower, and picks up some pollen. Tricked into another flower, pollination takes place.

It gets even better.

Put your finger back inside the plant opening. Notice how warm it is inside? Insects aren’t just conned by the smell of a skunk cabbage. Temperature also fools them. Skunk cabbages actually create heat. This capacity, called thermogenesis, is very rare in plants. In early January, spathes literally melt their way to the surface through frozen ground and ice. Call it a foetid flower if you must, but this miracle worker generates temperatures of up to 63°, and won’t freeze unless exposed to temperatures of 14° or below.

Things heat up even more during pollination. At this time, a skunk cabbage behaves like a warmblooded animal, consuming as much daily oxygen as a shrew or a hummingbird.

Is your coat on yet?

While you’re getting ready, let me share one more thing. I doubt you’ll be surprised that a plant with this much mojo has medicinal uses. According to WebMD, skunk cabbage contains chemicals that relieve pain and cause relaxation. Native American peoples used skunk cabbage roots and leaves to treat epilepsy and coughs, reduce swelling of wounds and bites, even as an aid in childbirth. But please don’t experiment! The raw roots of a skunk cabbage are toxic, and the leaves can burn the mouth.

In my view, these extraordinary plants are best left alone, simply appreciated. Some researchers believe skunk cabbages may be a thousand years old or more. I hope so.

Ready to enjoy these old souls? Let’s go.