Skunk or Swamp Cabbage – Flowers

(Spathyema foetida) Arum family (Symplocarpus foetidus of Gray)

Flowers—Minute, perfect, foetid ; many scattered over a thick, rounded, fleshy spadix, and hidden within a swollen, shell-shaped, purplish-brown to greenish-yellow, usually mottled, spathe, close to the ground, that appears before the leaves. Spadix much enlarged and spongy in fruit, the bulb-like berries imbedded in its surface. Leaves: In large crowns like cabbages, broadly ovate, often 1 ft. across, strongly nerved, their petioles with deep grooves, malodorous.

Preferred Habitat—Swamps, wet ground.

Flowering Season—February–April.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Florida, and westward to Minnesota and Iowa.

This despised relative of the stately calla lily proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter, being the first bold adventurer above ground. When the lovely hepatica, the first flower worthy the name to appear, is still wrapped in her fuzzy furs, the skunk cabbage’s dark incurved horn shelters within its hollow, tiny, malodorous florets. Why is the entire plant so foetid that one flees the neighborhood, pervaded as it is with an odor that combines a suspicion of skunk, putrid meat, and garlic ? After investigating the carrion-flower and the purple trillium, among others, we learned that certain flies delight in foul odors loathsome to higher organisms ; that plants dependent on these pollen carriers woo them from long distances with a stench, and in addition sometimes try to charm them with color resembling the sort of meat it is their special mission, with the help of beetles and other scavengers of Nature, to remove from the face of the earth. In such marshy ground as the skunk cabbage lives in, many small flies and gnats live in embryo under the fallen leaves during the winter. But even before they are warmed into active life, the hive-bees, natives of Europe, and with habits not perfectly adapted as yet to our flora (nor our flora’s habits to theirs—see milkweed, p. 136), are out after pollen. Where would they find any so early, if not within the skunk cabbage’s livid horn of plenty ? Not even an alder catkin or a pussy willow has expanded yet. In spite of the bee’s refined taste in the matter of perfume and color, she has no choice, now, but to enter so generous an entertainer. At the top of the thick rounded spadix within, the skunk cabbage florets there first mature their stigmas, and pollen must therefore be carried to them on the bodies of visitors. Later these stigmas wither, and abundant pollen is shed from the now ripe anthers. Meantime the lower, younger florets having matured their stigmas, some pollen may fall directly on them from the older flowers above. A bee crawling back and forth over the spadix gets thoroughly dusted, and flying off to another cluster of florets cross-fertilizes them—that is, if all goes well. But because the honey-bee never entered the skunk cabbage’s calculations, useful as the immigrant proved to be, the horn that was manifestly designed for smaller flies often proves a fatal trap. Occasionally a bee finds the entrance she has managed to squeeze through too narrow and slippery for an exit, and she perishes miserably.

“A couple of weeks after finding the first bee,” says Mr. William Trelease in the “American Naturalist,” “the spathes will be found swarming with the minute black flies that were sought in vain earlier in the season, and their number is attested not only by the hundreds of them which can be seen, but also by the many small but very fat spiders whose webs bar the entrance to three-fourths of the spathes. During the present spring a few specimens of a small scavenger beetle have been captured within the spathes of this plant. . . . Finally, other and more attractive flowers opening, the bees appear to cease visiting those of this species, and countless small flies take their place, compensating for their small size by their great numbers.” These, of course, are the benefactors the skunk cabbage catered to ages before the honey-bee reached our shores.

After the flowering time come the vivid green crowns of leaves that at least please the eye. Lizards make their home beneath them, and many a yellowthroat, taking advantage of the plant’s foul odor, gladly puts up with it herself and builds her nest to the hollow of the cabbage as a protection for her eggs and young from four-footed enemies. Cattle let the plant alone be-cause of the stinging, acrid juices secreted by it, although such tender, fresh, bright foliage must be especially tempting, like the hellebore’s, after a dry winter diet. Sometimes tiny insects are found drowned in the wells of rain water that accumulate at the base of the grooved leafstalks.