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Flowering Skunk Cabbage Serves as Warming Hut for Pollinating Insects

4-24-15  skunk cabbage 013As Skunk Cabbage grows, it absorbs oxygen, and this allows it to produce heat through a process known as thermogenesis. This heat is responsible for the fact that Skunk Cabbage is one of the earliest plants to flower in the spring.

Skunk Cabbage’s flower has two components – the flower-bearing, round spadix and the hood-like spathe that surrounds it. The spadix is able to maintain its temperature at about 68°F., creating a little warming hut inside the spathe for the few insects out this early in the spring. Fueled by the reserved starch in the plant’s underground rhizome, the spadix is able to exceed the temperature outside the spathe by as much as 77°F. for a period of two to three weeks. The combination of the heat produced and the dark, heat-absorbing spathe can cause the snow around the plant to melt. If the ambient temperature drops below 37.4°F., the plant can shut down the heating mechanism until the air temperature rises again. (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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7 responses

  1. Mary, I heard as a young boy that skunk cabbage is the fist flower to bloom in New England, and always wondered if this was tru. This must not count things like Witch Hazel, but are there other herbaceous plants that bloom earlier?

    April 24, 2015 at 8:18 am

    • Hi Craig,
      Skunk Cabbage truly is the first plant (herbaceous, not woody) to flower in New England. Silver Maples and a few other early-blossoming trees may occasionally beat it, but as far as herbaceous plants, it beats Coltsfoot, Trailing Arbutus, Hepatica and all the other early ephemerals. Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, actually flowers in the fall!

      April 24, 2015 at 8:30 am

  2. Amazing!

    April 24, 2015 at 8:21 am

  3. Dianne and Ed

    What a marvel of NATURE!!

    April 24, 2015 at 9:31 am

  4. Kathie Fiveash

    I’ve heard that the earliest pollinators are flies, and that the rotten smell of the skunk cabbage is particularly attractive to them.

    April 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    • Me, too. And that the heat created by the plant volatilizes the scent, attracting more insects.

      April 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm

  5. That is so interesting – didn’t know that!

    April 24, 2015 at 4:08 pm

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