First green of spring
Some people are mainly interested in large animals, such as deer, elk or bears. These animals are called mega-fauna, and are a very popular group of animals. Others are fascinated with birds. Small, often brightly-colored, winged beauties. Of course, what I especially enjoy about nature is….. everything! I enjoy the large animals, along with the tiny birds, and let’s not forget about the plants. Yes, I enjoy the green plants because they are the unsung heroes of the natural world. They do all the hard work, and get none of the attention or recognition.
From the tiny and unnoticed wildflowers to the large and impressive sequoia trees, I love plants. This was painfully obvious recently when I geeked out in front of some friends and family when we unexpectedly came across a large patch of Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing in the woods while on a hike.
Skunk Cabbage is a crazy cool plant that is one of the first green plants to grow and send out a flower each spring. This is truly a remarkable plant because it sprouts a large, mottled maroon-colored, hood-like flower while the ground is still frozen, and often while snow still blankets the ground. Amazingly, it does this by producing its own heat, raising the surrounding soil and air temperatures anywhere from 25 to 60 degrees F. That’s right, you read that correctly. The plant produces its own heat by cyanide resistant cellular respiration to melt its way through frozen ground and snow. This is one of just a handful of plants (thermogenic plants) that produce their own heat. The process is far too complex for me to explain how it works here, but when you see it for yourself, you will be amazed.
The stems of the plant’s leaves remain below ground, sending up just the flower, which is a long spadix and spathe. This is just a fancy way to say that the flower is surrounded by a sheath (hood) that protects and provides a micro-environment for early-flying insects. In addition to the heated space, the club-shaped flower structure (spadix) contains many tiny flowers that give off a foul, or skunky, smell, which helps to attract many insects, such as scavenging flies, stoneflies and bees. This is also how it got its common name.
In addition, it is believed that the heat from the plant helps to spread the aroma of the flower in the late winter air, which helps attract more insects. And once it attracts the insects, they stick around longer to enjoy the warm air, which means more of its flowers gets pollinated. After all, that is the name of the game, pollination.
This plant is native to eastern North America from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina and Tennessee and northwest to Minnesota. It grows mainly in wet woodlands where water pools or stands. Sometimes you find just a few plants, but mainly they are found in large groups of hundreds of plants. When you do see these large patches of heat generating plants, it appears very impressive.
If all of this isn’t enough to convince you that these are amazing plants, consider this. The Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots, which means the roots have recurved hairs that pull the body of the plant deeper into the muddy soils each year. In effect, the plant grows downward into the earth. Each season, the plant grows deeper and deeper into the soil, making the older plants nearly impossible to dig from the ground.
After the flowers are pollinated, it produces berry-like fruits, which contain the seeds. The seeds float on water, which is how they get dispersed away from the mother plant. The leaves are large, up to two feet long and one foot wide. The leaves contain less water than comparable leaves, and break down faster than other leaves.
Yeah, there are many cool critters and birds in the natural world, but the green plants are what makes all life on earth possible. Nothing could survive without the unsung heroes of the natural world, the plants. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author/naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and www.twitter.com. He can be contacted at www.naturesmart.com.