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Otto: Take time to smell the skunk cabbage

Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
This newly emerged skunk cabbage spathe stands about 4 inches tall and is one of several that can be seen at Ferson Creek Fen in St. Charles.

Last Saturday, hundreds of wee ones descended on Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles with a singular goal in mind: Find as many brightly colored, ovoid-shaped objects as possible, split them open and collect the sweet treats inside.

Meanwhile, across the river, a lone naturalist foraged about the dried grasses and moist soil of Ferson Creek Fen on a similarly focused mission: Find as many maroon, onion-shaped objects as possible and take pictures, then savor the sweet sight and pungent smell of our area’s earliest-blooming wildflower.

Alas, while the kiddos made out like little bunny-actuated bandits, the naturalist went home with nothing to show for her efforts – skunked again by skunk cabbage.

For the past few weeks, I’ve had this early spring flower on my mind. Historically, the Symplocarpus foetidus in Kane County has reared its lovely head, or spathe, in late February or early March. But because of the way the frost dawdled in the ground this year, and perhaps lingering effects from last year’s drought, the skunk cabbage at Ferson Creek Fen in St. Charles remained vexingly underground.

As this week progressed, like a kid denied candy, I became more and more obsessed with the flower’s appearance, or lack of, at the Fen. In fact, I would say I was stalking its stalks, were it not for the fact that skunk cabbage has contractile roots. They grow down, then contract, a movement that pulls the plant’s stem, or stalk, deep into the ground and makes it invisible from above.

Anyway, it wasn’t until Thursday, with its 50-plus temperatures, that I finally got to see what I’d so long been seeking: Mottled-maroon skunk cabbage buds poking through the soil, soaking up the warm afternoon sun. Although only a few plants were visible, the ground surrounding them was heaved, showing promise that more “blooms” would be poking through the surface soon.

If you’re familiar with the plant and its habits, you probably can picture what I’m talking about. But if you’ve never seen skunk cabbage in bloom, you may need a little further explanation, lest you envision leaves and petals and riots of color.

The skunk cabbage flowers actually are hidden inside a leathery hood – that spathe I mentioned earlier. It’s that structure which pops up first. Once it’s securely above ground, the spadix, a fleshy club of tissue inside, begins to bear tiny yellowish, bisexual flowers – none of which have petals.

The female flower parts – the pistils – bloom first, followed by the pollen-producing male parts, or stamens. This sequence fulfills two roles. It deters the plant from self-pollinating, and it gives the pistils a chance to receive pollen from earlier-blooming and more vigorous neighbors, thus strengthening the species.

Such order is impressive, but many folks feel skunk cabbage’s real claim to fame lies in its ability to create an oasis of 70-degre warmth inside the spathe. This cozy microclimate, like the flowering sequence, is multifunctional. It helps the flowers to grow, even when ambient temperatures are at freezing or below, and it attracts the all-important pollinators – flies and beetles that, in addition to the skunklike smell of the flower, appreciate a sheltered spot in which to warm up on a chilly spring day.

While scientists have long recognized skunk cabbage’s thermogenic properties, only recently have they begun to investigate just how precise the heat regulation is. Experiments measuring the temperature of the spadix found it fluctuated just 6.3 degrees, even when temperatures around it changed dramatically.

Such reactions to temperature change seem to indicate that skunk cabbage possesses the means for temperature sensation and subsequent heat production. Fascinating stuff indeed.

Speaking of temperature, this weekend’s weather forecast calls for daytime highs in the 50s – warm enough to get outside and grab, if not an Easter egg or two, at least some fresh air. If your plans also include a visit to a local natural area, consider a stop at Ferson Creek Fen (on the east side of Route 31, just south of Crane Road).

The skunk cabbage there is easiest to see from the westernmost overlook along the gravel path known as Ice House Road. (Yep, the name dates back to the days when ice was harvested from the Fox River.)

Although 50 degrees isn’t freezing, it’s not super-warm either; make sure you’re dressed properly so your body doesn’t have to do all the thermoregulating on its own. Stroll the paths and boardwalk, and take some time to smell the ... skunk cabbage.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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