The First Flower of Spring

Think our first flowers after the cold snows of winter are daffodils?

No, daffodils are latecomers.  Our first flowers in Prince William are likely to be flowers of the stinky, fly-attracting skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), blooming in rich wetlands.

Flowers evolved to perform a function.  They may look great in the middle of the dining room table, but their function in the natural world is all about bribing a bug, butterfly, bird, bat, or other creature to spread the pollen of one plant to the egg of another plant.

Plants are stuck in one place, unable to move; they don’t migrate in herds or flocks.  There are lots of collisions between deer and cars, but you’ll need to administer a Breathalyzer test to anyone who claims that the tree jumped into the road and caused an accident.

Skunk cabbage in particular is “sessile.”  Its roots contract and pull the plant deeper into the ground each year.  A softball-sized clump of skunk cabbage flowers blooming in early March may sit on top of an embedded, basketball-sized rootball.  That enables this wildflower to withstand the energy of floods that may wash across its habitat during the winter.

Skunk cabbage has a distinctive shape to its flower, and an unusual odor.  Sweet-smelling nectar in a rose or honeysuckle is a bribe to get a mobile critter to pick up the pollen, fly it to another flower, and allow fertilization to occur.  The skunk cabbage blooms so early, it gets to attract the first flies, beetles, bees, and true bugs of springtime to its flowers.   The “perfume” of skunk cabbage must smell good to some insects, but to humans it resembles rotting garbage…

Increasing the dispersion of that perfume may be the reason why skunk cabbage heats up.  Though it is a plant rather than an animal, skunk cabbage metabolizes its starch so rapidly the flower can be as much as 35 degrees warmer than the air.  Warmed scent disperses further, perhaps attracting more pollinators, while humans walking in wetland areas can spot the flowers by sight in early March.

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