Symplocarpus foetidus ~

Skunk Cabbage




My walk today was on the first day of spring.  It didn’t really feel any different because of that official designation, nature has been slowly working its way into spring for several weeks now.  Three of out my last four walks I have had flocks of tundra swans fly over, and I have heard sandhill cranes calling every day for about a week.

Tundra swans, as their name indicates, nest in the Arctic tundra.  Every spring they Stage in northeast Wisconsin.  Staging means that they stop in this area in order to fatten up before they continue northward.  Studies have shown that they may add up to a third to their body weight before moving on.  When they get to the tundra in a couple of weeks there usually isn’t a lot of food available, so they depend on the stored fat for survival until spring arrives on the tundra.

Historically, the tundra swans spent most of their staging time out on Green Bay.  They fattened up on wild rice, duck potato, wild celery and other wetland plants.  Unfortunately, because of pollution and the introduction of the common carp, (nature’s aquatic bulldozer), those plants have largely disappeared from the Bay.  Now the swans fatten up by foraging on waste grain left over in farm fields in this area.  The swans I see in the morning are flying from their overnight roosting sites on the Bay out to farm fields to feed for the day.

If you’ve never seen the tundra swans flying over, or heard the sandhill cranes performing their unison call, it is because you don’t have your ears turned on.  We humans have become such visual creatures, that most of us pay little attention to what we could be hearing.  Birders always have their ears turned on.  Google up the calls of tundra swans, one of the most beautiful in nature, and the many, varied calls of the sandhill cranes and listen for them on your next walk.

Wisconsin’s earliest flowering plant, the skunk cabbage, is now blooming.  Two great places to see skunk cabbage at Baird Creek are at the bottom of the first hill when you hike in from Christa McAuliffe Park, and in the low seepage area south of Baird Creek and east of Superior Road.

Although their flower is not particularly pretty the skunk cabbage is my favorite plant, just because it has so many unique characteristics.  The flower is very unusual, the spathe, a hood like sheath covers the flower, and the flower structure is a greenish, bumpy bulb called the spadix.  The leaves and the spathe smell like skunk, thus the name skunk cabbage.

I had always read that the flower has a rotting flesh smell to attract flies and gnats, which then assist in pollination.  I had always had my doubts about the whole rotting flesh thing, because all I ever smelled was skunk.  However, while leading a field trip last year I rubbed the spadix with my finger, and when I got my hand close to my nose I detected a faint odor of rotting flesh.  It appears that the bulk of the plant smells like skunk, but the spadix smells like rotting flesh.

Another bizarre characteristic of the skunk cabbage is their ability to produce heat, a process called thermogenesis, by which they can raise their temperature to 70 degrees F.  As near as I can tell the plant only does this while it is flowering.  The heat production allows the plant to thaw frozen ground and melt snow so that pollinators can reach the spadix.  If we get 3-4 inches of snow anytime in the next 2-3 weeks it will be an excellent time to witness thermogenesis in action.  The heat melts a perfect circle around the flower.

Get out and enjoy nature.  We should be practicing social distancing for the next few weeks, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get outside.  The asphalt trail will be the best hiking until the dirt trails dry out.

Charlie Frisk, President, Baird Creek Preservation Foundation