This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Spathe conch-shapcd, acuminate; spadix on a short, peduncle-like scape, oval and densely covered and tessellated with flowers ; stamens four, opposite the fleshy, cucullate sepals; ovary one-celled; style four-sided, tapering to a minute stigma; fruit an oval, fleshy, berry-like mass coalesced with the base of the persistent sepals and imbedded within the spongy receptacle; seed globular, destitute of albumen ; leaves at first orbicular cordate, finally cordate oval, on short petioles ; spadix much shorter than the spathe. (Darlington's Flora Cestrica. See also Gray's Manual, Wood's Class-Book, Chapman's Flora of the Southern States.)
NDER the name of "Skunk-Cabbage," the plant we now illustrate is very widely known. It is our earliest flowering plant, and the news of its first appearance is always hailed with delight by those who are anxiously looking for the first flowers of spring. It is singular, indeed, that it appears so early. No matter how deeply the ground may have been frozen in the winter, the first few warm days find the flowers ready to expand. The roots are seldom less than six inches from the surface, and it is quite probable that the pushing buds have grown up in some degree during the winter, thawing their way, as it were, through the frozen ground; for plants are in some respects like animals, and must keep up a certain degree of heat, no matter how low the temperature may be about them. The degree necessary is not, of course, near so high as that required by animals, but it is not probable that the juices of these plants ever thoroughly congeal, and thus the buds are able to keep travelling slowly upwards at comparatively low temperatures. That the parts would die if frozen is shown by some of the earliest flowers. Very often they are in such haste to open that they mistake a few warm February days for the return of spring, and expand only to meet severe weather. In these cases we find the spadix or interior mass of flowers (see Fig. 2) frozen through so solidly that it is with difficulty they can be cut apart, and then they become black and rapidly decompose on thawing. In the spring of 1877, the writer of this noticed plants in full flower in early March that were afterwards subjected for a week to a temperature below freezing point, and part of the time to eighteen degrees below. How little heat is required to bring forth the flower is well illustrated in one of Collinson's letters to Bartram, who sent some plants to England, which Collinson says had "beautiful flowers on them when the package was opened," called out by the mere heat of the ship's hold.
The Skunk-Cabbage can also teach us a good lesson in botanical relationship. Everybody knows the Calla of our green-houses, properly Richardia AEthiopica, and many know that it belongs to the Aracece or Arum family. The relationship between these two plants will at once be suspected. It is close, but there is some difference. Looking at the Calla, we see the spadix has male flowers along the upper portion, and the female flowers separately below. Our plant has these organs both in the one little flower. They are hermaphrodite, while the true Arums are monoecious. The family to which our plant belongs has been separated as Orontiaccae by some, but our distinguished botanist, Dr. Asa Gray, classes it with the Araceae. Indeed, characters founded on sexual organs are unreliable. In the Skunk-Cabbage they are variable. In most of the flowers of the spadix we find four stamens and four sepals, but in the course at the base there are generally five of each, and instances of five stamens with only four sepals are not uncommon in the upper flowers of the head. It is very likely that in some cases the pistils entirely abort, leaving nothing but perfect stamens to represent the flower. We have here a good lesson on the unreliability of these parts in establishing fixed characters in botanical descriptions.
It will also please the student to watch the development of stamens and pistils. If the temperature remains above forty-five degrees for about three days, the stamens will be fully developed in that time, but if only a very little above freezing point, it takes about a week to mature them after the pistil has been fully developed and is ready for pollenization; for the pistil seems to finish its growth before the stamens begin to make theirs. The stigma is a beautiful object under the lens, being capped by a crown of delicate, fringy hairs. The anthers are very large, and soon burst, discharging an immense amount of pollen, not only on their own pistil, but on those below. At the bottom of the shell-like spathe an immense quantity collects, and gives us some idea of the wondrous exuberance of nature.
Again, there is much of interest in this flower in connection with modern theories of the necessity and utility of cross-fertilization. Aracece have dry, dusty pollen, and generally colorless floral envelopes, and they are thought to be cross-fertilized by the aid of the wind. The maturity of the pistil before the stamens in the same flower is also regarded as indicating that the purposes of nature would be better served by the pollen being received by the stigma from another flower. In the case of our species, the spathe coils round the flower-head and protects it from the wind. It might be that the spathe is necessarily coiled to protect the flowers in this dangerous season, and so color is bestowed on it to attract pollen-carrying insects; but there are none of this class at this season. The scent may attract flies, and these do visit the flowers. If the temperature goes suddenly to sixty degrees, as it often does in early spring, even though the thermometer may have been for days below the freezing point, flies will abound. Pollen might possily be carried by them to the unfertilized pistils, and this would appear so probable that any one delighting in generalizations might take it for granted that cross-fertilization is thus effected; but the student takes nothing for granted when actual observation can be had. The writer of this has never been able to detect the slightest trace of pollen on the stigmas until they receive it from the flowers in their own spathe. Other students may, however, be more successful. This is one of the many unsettled questions that will give a zest to the studies of those who desire to observe critically the development of the flower.
The plant has been called "Skunk-Cabbage" or "Skunk-Weed" from its odor; but this is most marked after being bruised. If one will bend down over a flower and smell before gathering it, there will be little experienced that is disagreeable. The old Swedish settlers around Philadelphia used to call it "Bear Weed." Bears were abundant among them in those days, and it is said that after coming out from their long winter's sleep, they found this early plant a great luxury. It must have been a hot morsel, as the juice is acrid, and is said to possess some narcotic power, while that of the root, when chewed, causes the eyesight to grow dim. Infusions of the plant have been used by some physicians in whooping-cough and dropsy. The plant is found only to the east of the Mississippi, chiefly from North Carolina northwards; and it has no very near relations. Linnaeus thought it a Dracontium, under which name it is still referred to by comparatively modern authors. Sims refers to it as a Pothos, under which designation the student will yet sometimes meet it; but Symplocarpus is its now generally accepted name. This is from the Greek, and signifies, "united fruit." If we examine the fruit of the common Indian turnip, we find it a mass of separate (red) berries. In our plant the parts that might have been distinct are so united together as to form but a single, rough, globular mass, in which the seeds are imbedded, and of so peculiar a structure that Nuttall thought the plant viviparous. After separating from the receptacle and becoming scattered through the ground, the seeds are occasionally found by laborers or others when digging in the swampy places where they grow, and are generally regarded by them as petrified corn, and as such have often been brought to the writer.
1. The plant in flower before the leaves are far advanced.
2. The spathe half cut away to show the spadix.
3. Longitudinal section of spadix, showing the arrangement of the single flowers on the receptacle.
4. Individual flowers.