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Posts tagged “Symplocarpus foetidus

False Hellebore – A Skunk Cabbage Look-alike

5-15-19 false hellebore_U1A0086There are two unrelated plants whose very similar leaves are emerging at this time of year in many wetlands. One is Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), the other False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), also known as Indian Poke. There are foliage differences between these two plants. False Hellebore leaves emerge before its flowers whereas Skunk Cabbage flowers before its leave emerge. In addition, False Hellebore’s leaves clasp the plant’s stem and are elongated and oval, while Skunk Cabbage’s leaves do not clasp the stem and are rounded.

The flowers of these two plants are distinctly different as well. Skunk Cabbage’s yellow, globular flowers are near the ground and have already gone by. In June, False Hellebore produces flowers that are green, star-shaped and borne in large clusters on a tall stalk.

It is not advisable to consume the (raw) leaves of either of these plants. Skunk Cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals which cause a severe burning sensation in the mouth and the leaves of False Hellebore contain alkaloids which are highly toxic.

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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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Skunk Cabbage Fruits

After the flowers of Skunk Cabbage, located on the knob (spadix) sitting inside a modified leaf (spathe), have been pollinated and fertilized, the fruits begin to mature. The spathe withers and dies, and the stalk that carries the fruit head elongates, growing along the surface of the ground. Initially the fruit head is green and dark purple, measures 2-3” in diameter, and has a convoluted exterior resembling that of a brain. Inside this compound fruit a circle of 10 to 14 seeds lines the periphery. By August the fruit heads will have fallen apart, and the seeds will lay on the ground where they will likely germinate or be eaten by squirrels, ruffed grouse or wood ducks. (Congratulations Liz, Josh and Deb on correctly identifying yesterday’s Mystery Photo!)