Symplocarpus, a coalescing fruit. Spathyema, Greek, referring to the spathe.
Early perennial herb with strong, fetid odor; found in swamps, beside brooks, and on wet hillsides. Nova Scotia to North Carolina, west to Minnesota and Iowa. Common in northern Ohio. February-April.
Very thick, bearing many coarse, fibrous roots in whorls.
All basal, cordate, veiny, often two feet long and a foot wide, clustered, entire at margin, and acute at apex; petioles with deep grooves. Preceded in earliest spring by a purple, mottled spathe and hidden flowers. Spathe from three to six inches high.
Many, small, inconspicuous, greenish yellow to dull purple; packed closely on a fleshy spike called spadix which is hidden within a swollen, shell-shaped, mottled spathe close to the ground.
Of four hooded sepals.
Four, opposite the sepals; anthers conspicuous, extrorse.
Ovary one-celled, with angled and awl-shaped style.
An oval mass filled with berries, which become bright scarlet.
Pollinated by small flies and honey-bees.
Such buoyant faith has the Skunk-Cabbage, it never entirely loses sight of spring but exerts some spell over its muddy bed, whereby you may see that there at least it has already come in November. - KiRkham.
April 6, 1853.
On the edge of the meadow the air resounds with the hum of the honey-bees, attracted by the flower of the Skunk-Cabbage. I heard the fine, sharp hum of the honey-bees before I thought of them. It was surprising to see them directed by their instincts to these localities, while the earth has still but a wintry aspect, buzz around some obscure spathe close to the ground, and, well knowing what they are about, alight and enter. ... I watched many when they entered and when they came out, and all had little yellow pellets of pollen at their thighs. - Thoreau.
The first flower of our northern spring appears not infrequently in February, always in March; it has no great beauty that one should desire it, but is unusual in form and interesting in character. As soon as the surface of its boggy home is softened by the spring sunshine sufficiently to permit, a thick, fleshy, shell-shaped body, which the books call a spathe, pushes its pointed nose out of the ground, and soon rises to the height of three or four inches, spotted and striped with purple and yellow and green. This is not the flower, but the protector of the flowers. They are within, packed close upon a finger-like body called a spadix.
Most flowers have characteristic plans for securing cross-fertilization by the visits of flies, bees, butterflies, or moths, and Skunk-Cabbage is no exception. It is astonishing when snow is still on the ground here and there, that so much insect life can be abroad, yet certain small flies are really abundant; for all nature sleeps with one eye open. These fly about in the sunshine and, led either by the odor of the flowers or seeking the shelter of the fleshy tent, they enter and, crawling up, are covered with the abundant pollen; then entering another spathe, they leave some of this pollen upon the receptive stigmas. Sometimes honeybees visit the plant, but its chief reliance seems to be upon the small flies.
Skunk-Cabbage at Home. Spathyema foetida
Muller in his studies of the Skunk-Cabbage states that as the flowers open the temperature rises and so these little tents are not only shelter houses but places of actual warmth for the minute flies which frequent them.
After the flowering time is over the compactly coiled, pointed spike of leaves unfolds. The plant is regarded by farmers as something of a menace, for cattle in early spring, longing for something green, will frequently eat these leaves, which are acrid and poisonous. A common country name for the plant is Bear Weed, so called because bears were supposed to eat it when just awakened from their winter sleep, but it must be a hot morsel even for a bear.
The fruit ripens in September. By this time the thick spathe has decayed and fallen away, and the spadix has now become a large ball of bright-red berries, each about the size of a pea. This is found upon the ground close to the base of the leaves.
Two facts explain the Skunk-Cabbage's ability to swing into the race so early in the spring. The first is its enormous root development; the second because the flower is so well started in the fall; sometimes the thick, pointed spathes may be found pushing up into the light in November.