Photo by Barbara Yeaman
Skunk cabbage leaves, identified by arrows, have pushed above ground and are beginning to unfold. The inset picture shows small flowers, enclosed by a spathe, that have blossomed and started to fade. (click for larger version)

Skunk cabbage leaves (April 1). Despite the cold weather and snow flurries—our low was 24 degrees on April 5—local skunk cabbage plants have begun to shed their flowers, and pretty soon leathery hoods that enclose the flowers will decay and be recycled.

The signal for the hoods (called spathes) to disintegrate is the emergence of shoots, which are bound into spear shapes to penetrate the soil before they gradually unfold into leafy blades the size of tobacco leaves.

Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist traveling in New Jersey in 1749, wrote of skunk cabbage that “the Swedes call it bjornblad (bear’s leaf) or bjornrotter (bear’s root)…from the fact that the bears, when they leave their winter quarters in spring, are fond of it.”

Earlier, a colonial botanist, Thomas More, shipped specimens to London with a note about a pod containing skunk cabbage seeds. It was “a pod with seed enclosed which the natives [colonists] call Skunkroot because of his stinking smell; the Indians call him Poke or Smoak because they smoak it when they lack tobacco.”

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