Nature as Muse—Musings on Skunk Cabbage

As I came to a stop on the bridge over Blockston Branch, a place I have stopped many times before, I knew what I should be seeing. I also knew I wouldn’t see it until my eyes were ready to see it. But let me walk us back to the beginning.

I came to the Arboretum that morning to be a member of the Adkins Arboretum Nature as Muse group. I had been a part of a similar group several years ago at the Arboretum and have pages upon pages of journals, treasured arts and crafts pieces (beautiful only to me, I am sure), and many memories of the explorations and musings we had created. I was looking forward to the new group, but steeling myself not to expect what had been. I was delighted to find a welcome, and excitement, that was engaging and new, yet comfortable and known.

Michele Wade, our lead Muser for the day, had been saving a theme for just the right confluence of season and attendees. She introduced us to the wonders and many layers of a plant known as Skunk Cabbage. Depending on how willing you are to muck about stream beds and floodplains in January and February, you may have only known skunk cabbage as the big, bright green leaves of late spring that carpet the banks of streams. If you are willing to come out and look—now—you will have to let your eyes see, but once you do…

…well, mainly you will say, ‘what IS that?’ Because, really, it looks quite alien. Well ‘that’ is the bloom of a skunk cabbage. Poking its way up through leaf litter, detritus from floods, and, even in colder winters than we have had this year, melting the ice and snow around it. The multicolored gnome-like hood is known as a spathe and protects the actual bloom, or spadix, tucked inside. The spathe is open only with a narrow slot that admits access to its intended audiences, the winter hardy gnats, flies, and some bees.

In order to attract visitors, the spongy-textured spadix, actually the grouping of flowers on a fleshy sphere, gives off quite an unpleasant aroma for us but is perfectly attractive to the insects. We actually touched one and experienced the smell for ourselves. Maybe an initiation of sorts, it did take some teasing and double dog dares. Even the leaves are smelly when torn, but not as bad as the flower.

Another intriguing trait of the skunk cabbage is how well it clings and anchors itself to the ground with roots that reach down and out and branch at the end to extend even more rootlets, like fingers digging into the soil. It has to be able to withstand the floods after a rain swells the creek bed, and the turkeys that forage on their way through to the next field (deer are as sensitive to the skunk scent and chemistry of the leaves as we are and leave it be).

We can’t see that web-like anchor directly, but when you take your next walk at the Arboretum and head down to the first bridge, stop and stare awhile. Your eyes will start to learn the pattern of the gnome-like spathe and will see just how many have settled in such a small area—testament to the strength and tenacity of a plant willing to poke its head up through the blankets of winter and see what is to be seen.

The group meets again March 7 (and the first Wednesday of most months) to experience a bit of nature and let it act as muse—you are most welcome to muse along with us!

by Michelle Dolan Lawrence
Arboretum docent and Maryland Master Naturalist


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