As days become longer, the grayness and cold seem to mask any subtle signs of spring. Some animals might start to become more active this month, but many dormant plants still have a long wait before they can safely emerge. However, one plant called the skunk cabbage does not wait around for the snow to thaw before it dares to peek above the ground. Spring ephemerals, like the skunk cabbage, have adapted to take advantage of early growing conditions such as moist, rich soil and no leaves to block sunlight. In fact, it is often the first plant to bloom. In late February through March, this trailblazing plant blooms so rapidly that its growth generates enough energy to create heat that actually melts the surrounding snow.
Skunk cabbage is a perennial that grows in a wide native range throughout North America and Asia, where it lives in wetland habitats, river valleys and bogs. Botanists theorize that the plant could live for at least a thousand years and have documented specimens that are several hundred years old. This longevity could be attributed to the plant’s contractile roots which are like a dandelion’s. When these plants grow, the root pulls the stem and bulb deeper into the soil. In effect, the plant grows downward, not upward each year, so older plants are practically impossible to dig up.
The skunk cabbage’s odd flower consists of two parts the spathe and the spadix. The spathe is a maroon cone that opens and curls into a hood-like shape that encloses the spadix, which is a cylinder of tightly packed flowers. As the spadix finishes flowering, the spathe withers away and the pollinated flowers begin their task of developing seed containing fruit. The alien-like appearance of the plant transforms into a configuration of leaves in a circular pattern about 2 ft. long and 1 ft. wide. Young plants have few leaves, while very old plants have many. In early summer the leaves begin decaying into a black, slimy substance that soaks back into the ground. All that remains by late summer is the dark red to black ripened fruit clustered along the disintegrating spadix, now open to the air just above ground level.
The skunk cabbage gets its name from the pungent odor it emits to attract pollinators, but dissuades foraging animals from eating it. Pollinators are not only attracted to the smell of the plant, but also the heat it gives off, which helps to disperse the odor more easily. For a period of about two weeks while the plant is in active growth it is able to keep the tiny “room” inside the spathe at about 70F! By exploring the odor and warmth of the plant, flies, bees and gnats pollinate it in the process. Spiders live in the crevices of the spathe to prey upon any visiting pollinators. Planting a few skunk cabbages in your garden may attract a healthy variety of pollinators, while the smell repels unwanted mammal visitors that may nibble at your plants. Be careful though, skunk cabbage contains calcium oxalate which makes it toxic to most animals. If any house pets have access to the skunk cabbage keep a watchful eye because a few bites of the leaves will cause burning and swelling of the mouth. In extreme cases, ingestion could be fatal. There are few animals brave enough to eat the skunk cabbage; black bears, wild turkey and Canada geese will eat the young leaves, buds or roots, and several species of moth caterpillars eat the leaves.
Interested in learning more about pollinator gardens, the skunk cabbage, or other unique plants? Visit the Kroening Interpretive Center and peruse our variety of resources to explore the outdoors. Experience the diversity of prairie plants with our Putting Down Roots art installation, featuring fiber art that showcases prairie flowers (exhibit ends March 31). Warm up to our collection of children’s nature books in our cozy reading corner. Traverse the surrounding paths of North Mississippi Regional Park as the snow melts, and identify early blooming plants with one of our wildflower guidebooks. Spend your Saturdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at our Naturalist’s Nature Table for a closer look at a seasonally themed topic. Bring the kids to the Center for an afternoon on Sundays from 12:30-3:30 p.m. for Family Funday.
Summer camp registration opens March 8 at noon.
March Public Programs: March 4 – Early Birding: Search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m., free for all ages. March 19 – Ephemerals Hike: Learn to find the earliest spring blooms, 1:30-3 p.m., free for all ages. March 25 – Bird Signs of Spring: Discover the early spring activities of our local birds, free for all ages.
Kids Spring Break Activities: March 15 – Predator vs. Prey: Find out how animals battle for survival, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., ages 6-12, $20. March 16 – Nature Detectives: Follow tracks, scat and other wild signs, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., ages 6-12, $20. March 17 – Leprechaun Secrets: Learn the best kept tricks of the forest, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., ages 6-12, $20. March 31 – Expert of the Dirt: Discover the hidden world under the surface. 8 a.m.-4 p.m., ages 6-12, $20.
For info or to register for programs at North Mississippi visit minneapolisparks.org and like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what’s happening in our park!
Submitted by Lynn Hu and Emily Bowers, MPRB Naturalists at North Mississippi Regional Park