Nature Nearby: A little smelly start to spring

Take a walk and a whiff through Magruder Swamp this weekend - your nose won't forget it.

By FRED SEITZ — Walking along the Trolley Trail the last week in December, I noticed some familiar green shoots vigorously coming up.  

Then on New Year’s Day, I spotted a reddish spathe (a large sheathing bract enclosing the flower cluster) along the boardwalk in Magruder Swamp.  

The shoots and the spathe signaled skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), the familiar harbinger of spring.

Both glimpses of skunk cabbage were pleasant reminders that spring will soon be knocking at our doors. A member of the arum family (Araceae), the skunk cabbage has a chemistry that can produce heat — temperatures up to 55 degrees — which gives it some help coming up even as early as late winter. Indeed, in the coming weeks, skunk cabbage will flourish in our swampy, moist areas.

This heat also helps disseminate the “delightful” odor which gives the plant its charming name. Skunk cabbage thrives in wet areas and truly smells like its mammalian namesake.

We’re not alone in finding skunk cabbage stinky. Indeed, some gardeners plant skunk cabbage to protect their veggies from furry animals like squirrels and raccoons.

Some of our beneficial and attractive insects, including butterflies and bees, don’t mind the stink. They are skunk cabbage pollinators. Other less endearing insects, such as carrion flies, are also attracted to skunk cabbage and help pollinate it, too.   

The cabbage’s large leaves can be eaten after being boiled in several changes of water. People have also used the leaves to treat headaches and earaches, but this is ill-advised. The chemical (calcium oxalate) that warms the cabbage in spring can burn your mouth and cause your throat to close up. Hence, it is preferable to restrain children and curious pets from eating the beautiful green leaves of the skunk cabbage. Hopefully, its odoriferous nature will also do some restraining of its own.

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