April 13, 2014 Spring is in the Air with Vibrant Yellow Skunk Cabbage
Spring is in the air and a marvelous plant known as skunk cabbage, or yellow lantern, is already in bloom throughout much of Pacific Northwest. This remarkable plant is able to flower when the temperature still hovers around freezing.
Its habitat and physical characteristics make skunk cabbage easy to recognize. Found in mid- to low elevations, this native Pacific Northwest plant thrives in mucky, wet swamps near red alder, Sitka spruce and western redcedar.
The physical and chemical features of skunk cabbage – a member of the arum family – distinguish it from all other native plants. It has large green leaves with a yellow, erect column, about 8 inches high, surrounded by a bright yellow sheath.
It’s a precocious spring bloomer and has an eloquent sequence of events leading to flowering. Often the flower is 86 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding air, enabling it to punch through snow cover. These high temperatures occur because the plant oxidizes vast amounts of stored food, mainly fat, sometimes consuming in one day as much as a quarter of the total weight of the erect floral column.
Some lilies, like the Easter lily, are very fragrant. Others are fetid. What’s so important about how a flower smells? Scent determines which insects will partner with plants and assist with pollination. Sweet smelling flowers attract bees and wasps while foul smelling flowers mimic carrion and entice flies and some beetles to act as pollinators.
Skunk cabbage, as the name implies, stinks. And in the Pacific Northwest it relies on rove beetles to assist with its pollination. The beetles are attracted to the smell and when they land on the flower, they gorge themselves with pollen and other flower parts. After feasting and before leaving, some beetles even indulge in mating. When they land on the next skunk cabbage, inadvertently they brush against the new flower and pass pollen from one plant to the next.
These highly evolved relationships within nature constantly remind scientists how important and exquisite all life within forests are.
Skunk cabbage berries are an important spring food source for ground squirrels and particularly black and grizzly bears. The First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest ate steamed parts of skunk cabbage, but only sparingly. The plant contains a form of calcium that has sharp crystals which cause irritation and burning sensations. The leaves were used as a “wax paper” for lining berry baskets and steaming pits.
The sight of this magical yellow lantern-like plant makes it official – spring has sprung in the Pacific Northwest.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and author of The Incomparable Honeybee and The Economics of Pollination.
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2014. All rights reserved.