Nature offers us odd and amazing insights, with curiosity as its only requirement. You're probably wondering what Skunk Cabbage can teach us. It's definitely a strange subject for a blog, and it's easy to turn up our noses at something so stinky, and at first glance, so unappealing. But join me in investigating the mysteries behind a seemingly uninteresting plant.
This perennial wildflower thrives in wet areas of the forest. It grows beside the stream that empties into our pond, and every year its blooms are among the first signs of spring. A distinctive feature of skunk cabbage is that it sprouts flowers first, often while snow still covers the ground. The flowers are well camouflaged and easy to miss. They look like something out of a science-fiction movie — mottled purple and green pods that partially cover white spikes of tiny blossoms.
And if their appearance isn't odd enough, these flowers have the unique capability of creating heat, warming themselves to about 59 degrees. This enables them to push through the frozen earth, melt any remaining snow, and survive through spring frosts. As a result, these early flowers provide pollen for eager bees when little else is blooming.
Wonder why this intriguing plant is called skunk cabbage? Its name comes from the offensive scent the flower emits — like skunk or rotting meat — and it's not just the blossoms that emit this foul odor. By late spring, tight rolls of cabbage-like green leaves unfold. When the leaves are crushed, broken, or bruised, they too give off the horrible smell of decaying flesh.
The odor is perfume to bees, butterflies, and many beneficial insects. And the pollen and nectar from the flowers are a healthy diet for the insects that are attracted to the scent.
But this same foul smell repels mammals. Human beings, dogs, cats, and other animals are repulsed by the stench, and that's a good thing. It's a warning that eating even small doses — as little as two bites — will make our mouths burn and swell, and even cause choking.
The foul odor of skunk cabbage keeps deer and other herbivores — animals who eat plants — from dining on the attractive green leaves. Knowledgeable gardeners plant occasional skunk cabbages in spots where they have problems with four-legged food thieves. If deer snack on your berry bushes, rabbits steal your carrots, squirrels eat your corn, or raccoons get into your tomatoes, the natural scent of skunk cabbage will keep them away.
What can we learn from this unusual wild flower? A healthy respect for its inherent gifts: the chemical ability to warm itself; the early availability of pollen for bees; and the unique quality of its scent to attract insects, and to repel mammals.
For years I've known this plant by name. But my mind dumped it into a category called, "uninteresting" — you know, the mental file for people, plants, subjects, and events where we store negative first impressions. But why should my first impression be the lasting one? John Burroughs, the American naturalist said:
"I go to nature to be soothed and healed,
and to have my senses put in order."
It makes sense that an investment of curiosity and time shifts ideas from uninteresting to fascinating.
By being curious and open, nature reveals amazing insights; strangers become best friends; adventures build valued skills; and experiences become treasured memories.
Curious about anything?
Sources: urbanecologyfoundation.org, nationalwildlifefederation.org