Garden Notes: In nature’s damp garden

Behold the skunk cabbage.

Emerging spathes of skunk cabbage grow alongside beech and beetlebung. — Susan Safford

Ahoy, Spring! It has been wet, if not saturated, and the seasonal turning leads me to seek out where water is flowing and winter’s accumulations have been settling and breaking down into forest soil. (To visit an Island wetland near you, consult Will Flender’s “Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard,” published by Vineyard Conservation Society.)

Please, do not clean your woods. Biomass in woods allowed to rot is the precursor to soil, and it is this process, over time, that has led us to the covering, such as it is, that we enjoy on Martha’s Vineyard and in New England: It is what holds and stores our water resource.

Wetlands store water and are not developable land, which leads to covert attempts to drain those inconvenient areas — clear-cut, run livestock, install conduit, etc.; but without the seeps and sloughs, the Island’s water resource would be meager. Sandpiles dry out fast.

Most of us won’t own a woodsy Island brook or wetland: Right now, there’s standing water everywhere; that’s perhaps a relief. And yet, failing to esteem skunk cabbage, the damp-loving, mottled Man of the Woods of late winter, would be a sorry omission, although I shall spare you its à la Euell Gibbons culinary potential.

For Symplocarpus foetidus (hardiness: to zone 4), a curious and unusual native, is bull-nosing out of Island muck now. Its flecked and blotched spathes have a presence and ecology unlike that of most plants, due to its properties, bold form, and size. It is an example of ecological symbiosis.

Visibly emerging spathes mean the skunk cabbages are flowering; the lettuce-green leaves will follow shortly. Flowering is accomplished earlier in winter than one might think, due to unique heat-generating (thermogenic) capabilities. These produce temperatures 27° to 63° above air temperature, according to Wikipedia, allowing buds to emerge through ice and snow. Skunk cabbage is one of a very few plants that can do this.

The warmth zone also softens the muck. This permits the plants’ special contractile roots to pull the crown deeper and deeper down into its protection, another unusual trait skunk cabbage shares with a different category of plants: those whose roots pull them into the ground by contraction, as narcissus and lilium bulbs’ roots do.

The warmth encased by the spathe in turn enables the flowering spadix to expand and bloom, spreading its stinky fragrance, and inviting pollinators inside its tiny microclimate, both tempting and helpful to the flies, bees, and stoneflies that pollinate the flowers. Everyone benefits.

I noted the following on symbiosis; I forget where I found it — maybe it’s original and I wrote it! It means “living together,” and refers specifically to close relationships between different organisms, which may benefit both (mutualism), or one partner without harming the other, such as the skunk cabbage flower and its chilled insect visitors.


Trees: beetlebung

There is no mutualism, that we know of, that throws skunk cabbage and beetlebung into proximity with each other, only habitat. Where we find the one, the other is likely to be nearby.

Close to colonies of skunk cabbage will be found the beautiful, wetland-adapted tree, Nyssa sylvatica: To most Islanders, it needs no introduction. This is one of my favorite trees, due to its twiggy, fine tracery in winter, its clean, glossy foliage in summer, and its burnished, glowing fall color.

For beetlebung, as it is known on the Vineyard to the chortles of mainlanders, is a colonizer too. It grows root sprouts, often resulting in stands, and a single tree, if growing in a propitious location, may become surrounded by a sizable clonal colony in time. However, singletons are equally likely to be found in the red maple–hardwood swamp habitat, or atop a perched water table on a relatively dry ridgeline in the Island’s morainal areas. It likes deep, damp, acidic soil. Its groves are nearly always visually distinctive, as all who pass by Beetlebung Corner and Sweetened Water know.

The wood is heavy and cross-grained, making beetlebung difficult to work or split; over much of its extensive North American range, the tree was not much logged, although uses for its lumber included handles of heavy-duty tools, chopping bowls, gunstocks, and hardwearing factory floors, according to Peattie’s “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.”

Specialist items, such as the heads of mauls and beetles, supplied its comically alliterative local sobriquet, which were used for “bunging” the ever-present barrels, the indispensable shipping containers of the pre-20th century. Much of that must have taken place hereabouts, due to casking and bunging whale oil supplies, among other products.

The trees make handsome additions to Island vistas and domestic landscapes. It was thought that beetlebung had limited landscape use, due to its taproot. However, good root balls using root-pruning containers eliminate that concern. In Michael Dirr’s opinion, it is a truly handsome tree: “one of our most beautiful native trees.” He praises the pyramidal form, pendulous branch habit, and foliage qualities. Swale planting, anyone?


In the garden

Multiple storms keep debris falling, and collection of it ongoing. Small branches and twiglets, less than three inches in diameter, are among the most valuable materials (ramial wood: for producing humus-rich, moisture-retentive compost.

Despite the likelihood of March and April’s throwing a few more curveballs at us, we are pruning hypericum, shrub roses, climbers, and Rosa rugosa; hold the buddleia. Force something: forsythia, quince, corylopsis! Group III hybrid clematis may be cut back to a couple of pairs of strong buds, while sweet autumn clematis may be cut to the ground.

My Spencers, ‘Green Arrow’ and ‘Dwarf Grey Sugar’ peas, are sown in cells inside, for later transfer to the garden; too many disappear when sown in-ground.