Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Stinks, Part II

The only thing that seems to be growing in our woods so far this spring season is skunk cabbage.
  Which may be one reason that skunk cabbage stinks so much.  The smelly cloaks may deter grazing animals from eating those first fresh plants of the year.  I can imagine a deer would enjoy crunching on those juicy leaves after spending the winter browsing on twigs and scratching around for acorns. However, the plants are chemically protected with volatiles like skatole and cadaverine.  These enable the skunk cabbage to mimic putrescence and this discourages most animals from eating it, except maybe very hungry bears. The skunk cabbage also has another chemical defense.  The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals which produce an intense burning sensation in the mouth.  No wonder that skunk cabbage is left basically alone even though it is on the front lines of spring.

  In my last post on skunk cabbage, I mentioned that hidden inside the hood (spathe) is the spadix with its flowers.  The spadix produces heat which protects the flowers from freezing. This heat production also wafts about the skunk cabbage's foul odor in order to attract pollinators. The spathe has a major role in this heating strategy.

 Not only is the spathe designed to protect the skunk cabbage, but the spathe is also engineered to create vortices that help maintain the elevated temperatures surrounding the spadix.  These swirling air currents help spread the plant's volatiles and may also entrain pollen into the wind to aid in the pollination process.

  I don't know about you, but when I see a skunk cabbage patch, I momentarily think spring stinks.  Then I realize how amazing it is to observe those specially designed, chemically protected, vortex making hoods work in conjunction with the thermogenic spadix as they perform their duties facilitating the pollination of our first spring wildflower. Spring only stinks momentarily.

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1 comment:

  1. Skunk cabbage really is amazing. I do not think I have seen it here in Nova Scotia. I will definitely be on the lookout for it as spring arrives.

    Your son must be getting a very wonderful education about our natural world. He is a lucky boy.

    Eastern Passage, NS