At this time of year we are all longing for signs of spring. If you’ve recently wandered in any of the marshes, bogs swamps or moist areas of the Sea to Sky corridor, you’ve probably seen one of the first signs of spring protruding through the last remnants of winter snow; the bright yellow of the skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum ).
Skunk cabbage is the first flower to bloom in spring and it has been seen as early as late January during mild winters in our area. The first part of the skunk cabbage to appear is the "spathe", which is essentially a group of bright yellow leaves 10-15 cm in height that enclose the flowers. The leaves of the spathe form what is described as a hood that envelopes the flowers, leaving a small opening on one side. The flower head, which is a round to spherical shaped club 2 cm in diameter, is called a "spadix". The spadix consists of many tightly packed small flowers. But these flowers are not what we think of when we visualize flowers, as they have no petals.
Instead they have only four pale yellow "sepals" which are the bud leaves that usually enclose the petals. These rolled sepals enclose both the "stamen", which is the male plant organ responsible for producing the pollen and the "style", the female organ that is pollinated and produces the seeds.
In late spring the skunk cabbage sends up tightly rolled leaves that slowly unfurl and grow up to 1.5 metres in length and 60 cm in width. These leaves are the largest of any North American native plant. By mid June, the flower head swells and develops into the fruit. The fruit looks like a small, egg-shaped ear of corn about 5 cm in diameter. They are green to reddish and ripen to black as the summer progresses.
If you move in for a closer look you will learn how the skunk cabbage obtained its name. The leaves when bent or bruised produce a not overly offensive, musky, skunky smell. If you happen to put your nose closer to the spathe you will notice the smell is somewhat stronger here.
So why would a plant waste valuable energy producing smell? Well, sex of course, or rather its consequence-reproduction. In the early spring, the only insects that seem to be around are flies. Flies at this time of the year are looking for carrion such as dead mice or birds in which to lay their eggs. Thus the skunk cabbage creates the musky, skunk-like, carrion-like odour, to attract the flies. The flies will crawl into the spathe, lay their eggs and hopefully, from the plant’s point of view, simultaneously ensure pollination.
So, on your next walk when you spot the bright yellow of a skunk cabbage, take a moment and move in for a closer smell.
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Written by: Sorcha Masterson