The first signs of spring along the Passage are small.
Although the riotous wildflowers of May are still weeks away, the first “flowers” are already showing up in March.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is found in the drainage ditches and natural wetlands alongside the trail throughout its length. The odd flowers can be found now in more northern sections with new blossoms slowly inching their way into the higher, and cooler, parts of the Allegheny Mountains.
The flowers aren’t typical of the bright, showy flora of late April through the summer, but are evolved to cope with the end of winter and fickle early spring.
Poking above the surface of the wet ground, or even standing water, the blooms are built of a several inch fleshy, brown or purple cone with a bulbous base and mottled with yellow spots or patches. On one side the cone is open to the outside. Inside is a 3 to 5 inch spadix. The spadix is a spike of flowers on a thickened, fleshy stem. This is the real “flower” of the skunk cabbage.
This flower form is common with a number of plants on the arum family. Think of jack-in-the-pulpit in the near-by woods or calla lily at the florist shop. Both of these are in the same family of plants as skunk cabbage.
As the season evolves the large leaves will emerge and spread. They, not the flower, are the parts of the plant that give the common name. Breaking a skunk cabbage leaf produces the same pungent odor as scaring a skunk. Although the odor is unpleasant the smell isn’t harmful.
The plant has evolved the ability to generate heat in the flowers. Enough heat to warm the air inside the fleshy cone 15 to 35 degrees higher than the outside air. This provides a snug environment for insects on cold late winter days. The bugs pay the rent by flying around and crawling over the flowers and thus pollinating them.
At the end of the season, in September, when the leaves die back the spadix is now a multiple fruit with pea sized seeds.