Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not Necessarily Pretty

The warm wind smells fresh and damp, and brings with it sunshine, birdsong, and melting snow.

In places, though, the wind carries an unpleasant smell, sometimes described as a mixture of burning automobile tires, decaying meat, and garlic. If you follow your nose upwind you may find yourself in a mostly frozen swamp. Black ash and red maple trees stand like skeletons against the sky. Dogwood and alder shrubs form thickets around the edges.

If you are brave enough to explore on the rotten ice, you may find something rotten indeed – or at least something trying to make you think it is rotten! This is the home of the skunk cabbage.

More conspicuous in summer when their large green leaves grown in tall rosettes, but more interesting right now, the blossoms of skunk cabbage deliberately smell like dead stuff to attract early spring pollinators like honey bees and carrion beetles.

The insects not only get a snack when they visit a skunk cabbage, they also get a warm place to rest. Skunk cabbages are able to bloom so early because they actually produce heat and melt their way up through the ice. The heat is released through oxidation and break-down of sugars, an essential process in our own metabolism as well.

During the two weeks that skunk cabbages flower, they consume about the same amount of oxygen as a small mammal of comparable size. In fact, one researcher has quipped that they are "more skunk than cabbage." This high metabolism allows the plant to regulate itself like a warm-blooded animal, maintaining a temperature of about 30 degrees Fahrenheit above the outside air.

To accomplish this energetically costly feat, skunk cabbages prepared way last summer by storing lots of starch in their roots. They also pre-formed their flower bud, and it overwintered as a tightly closed bundle a few inches tall.

The purple and yellow apostrophe-shaped flowers are not really pretty, but then, not much is this time of year. Museum visitors are reporting robins, timber doodles (woodcocks), and moths. Still, the woods are drab and wet.

With more sunshine and warm days, that will change quickly. The drab, stinky skunk cabbage will be replaced by vibrant yellow marsh marigold, delicate purple hepatica, and the sweet smell of honeysuckle. In the wisdom of Mary Oliver: “Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle refinements, elegant and easeful, wait to rise and flourish. What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.”

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