Can You Smell Spring?

skunk cabbageWhen out enjoying state parks this spring, pay special attention to the edge of streams, wetlands and other wet areas for skunk cabbages, a tell-tale sign of spring’s arrival.

These fleshy hooded flowers are among the first to appear in the spring, coming up through the snow. They produce heat and are therefore able to melt the snow around them as they spring up. The eastern skunk cabbage has contractile roots that contract after growing into the earth. This motion pulls the stem deeper into the mud, having the effect of growing into the ground instead of upward. The spathe is what you see popping up in colors varying from green to purple. The spathe protects the club-like spadix which is surrounded by tiny flowers.

Where does the name skunk cabbage come from? All parts of the plant give off a foul odor if broken or bruised. Check it out the next time you see one. This odor helps to attract its best pollinators, flies!

Don’t let cabbage in the name fool you, these plants are not edible. Their leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals that cause a burning sensation in the mouth. The skunk cabbage was used by Native Americans, combined with other plants to treat a variety of ailments including swelling, coughs, consumption, rheumatism and more. In the 19th century it was even listed in U.S. Pharmacopoeia as the drug “dracontium” for treatment of respiratory organs, nervous disorders, rheumatism and dropsy.

Take a hike or a walk through a state park near you and search for the spectacular plants the world has to offer.

See more at NYS Parks’ Nature Times blog.

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