52 and sunny on New Year’s Day. Not usual around here. So while some people actually sat inside and watched football it was the traditional (well, for about four years anyhow) trek out in the woods to find Mr. skunk cabbage, THE harbinger of all good things to come.
There was more mud than soil but why quibble. We found this healthy little guy in an isolated pocket of cold just as the last patch of my blue jeans got its brown caking.
Not as dramatic as normal, since it’s normally arctic around here now and the magic is the force the skunk cabbage exerts as it powers through ice and snow to claim its spot in the firmament.
Mr. SC is a true miracle. Found this article in the Toronto Star that explains it perfectly.
In a small section of the valley floor I know to be particularly soggy in spring, I found the strange, curved leaves of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking up here and there through the snow and ice. The surpassingly odd leaves, ranging in colour from a mossy chartreuse to a mottled cabernet, spiral around on themselves, forming a spongy hood (called a spathe) that encloses a spherical flower head (the spadix) inside.
As I roamed, I found a few skunk cabbages bursting up from the ground inside nearly perfectly circular clearings in the snow — another oddity until you know the explanation. These clearings are the visible demonstration of this species’ almost magical ability to melt the very ice and snow around them. They do this by producing heat, a process known as thermogenesis, in a phenomenon first described by American biologist Roger Knutson in 1974.
Knutson found that the flower heads inside the protective hoods of the skunk cabbages were maintaining an internal temperature 15 to 35 degrees Celsius above ambient air temperatures of -15 C to +15 C, and were able to keep this up for a period of at least two weeks.
The plants accomplished this astonishing feat with some very unplant-like biology: the tissues of the flower ramped up to a high rate of metabolism comparable to what a warm-blooded animal (like a mammal) of equivalent size would have.
With heat produced this way, skunk cabbages are able to push up through the mud of the wet woodlands, actually melting the snow and ice around them as they do.
Biologists have hypothesized that warm air inside the hood, scented with a slightly fetid, skunky odour released by the flowers, attracts the first flying insects of the season, giving the plants an early start in the all-important race to pollinate.
Lacking petals, the pretty, showy parts of most flowers, skunk cabbages are unlikely to win any beauty awards. But they could certainly snag a trophy for ingenuity. By being the first to bloom, this odd member of the arum family tells us spring in our wet woodlands has finally arrived — snow on the ground or not.