Monday, March 24, 2008


Skunk Cabbage

From some books discarded by a college library a few years ago, I retrieved Britton and Brown, An Illustrated Flora of the United States and Canada (1913), reprinted by Dover Publications in 1970, with a sturdy library binding. On p. 445 of vol. 1 is a description of the skunk cabbage:
Leaves numerous, in large crowns, 1°-3° long, often 1° wide, strongly nerved, abruptly acute at the apex, thin, entire, their petioles deeply channeled. Root-stock thick, descending, terminating in whorls of fleshy fibers; spathe preceding the leaves, erect, 3'-6' high, 1'-3' in diameter at the base, convolute, firm; purple-brown to greenish-yellow, often mottled, its short scape usually subterranean, spadix about 1' in diameter in flower, greatly enlarging and sometimes 6' in diameter in fruit; mature seeds 4"-6" long.
Rather dry reading. Donald Culross Peattie advised would-be writers to write the book they would like to read but could not find anywhere. There is a book I would like to read but cannot find, although I have neither the leisure nor the skill to write it. Its title might be A Flora of the United States and Canada, with Excerpts from Thoreau and Other Writers and Illustrations by Landscape Painters, and the entry for skunk cabbage would have the following excerpts from Thoreau's Journal.

April 4, 1856:
I find many sound cabbages shedding their pollen under Clamshell Hill. They are even more forward generally here than at Well Meadow. Probably two or three only, now dead among the alders at the last place, were earlier. This is simply the earliest flower such a season as this, i. e. when the ground continues covered with snow till very late in the spring. For this plant occupies ground which is the earliest to be laid bare, those great dimples in the snow about a springy place in the meadow, five or ten feet over, where the sun and light have access to the earth a month before it is generally bare. In such localities, then, they will enjoy the advantage over most other plants, for they will not have to contend with abundance of snow, but only with the cold air, which may be no severer than usual. Cowslips and a few other plants sometimes enjoy the same advantage. Sometimes, apparently, the original, now outer, spathe has been frost-bitten and is decayed, and a fresh one is pushing up. I see some of these in full bloom, though the opening to their tents is not more than half an inch wide. They are lapped like tent doors, effectually protected. Methinks most of these hoods open to the south. It is remarkable how completely the spadix is protected from the weather, first by the ample hood, whose walls are distant from it, next by the narrow tent-like doorway, admitting air and light and sun, generally I think on the south side, and also by its pointed top, curved downward protectingly over it. It looks like a monk in his crypt with powdered head. The sides of the doorway are lapped or folded, and one is considerably in advance of the other. It is contrived best to catch the vernal warmth and exclude the winter's cold.
October 31, 1857:
If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk cabbagedom? "Up and at 'em," "Give it to 'em," "Excelsior," "Put it through,"—these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the "weary shall be at rest." But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!

I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can't nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter's hill. They see another summer ahead.
My imaginary Flora might also have this description of the skunk cabbage by Charles C. Abbott, Upland and Meadow: A Poaetquissings Chronicle (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 43:
Because of its mephitic odor we are apt to shun it, and it is not to be carelessly handled, nor will any become enthusiastic over it; yet the despised skunk-cabbage must be considered in the list of the winter-blooming plants of Poaetquissings. Its purple-tinted, shell-shaped spathe will bear examination, and the ball of flowers it contains will be found in full bloom always in February, and sometimes earlier. However disparagingly this vigorous plant is spoken of -by most of those who know it at all, it is kindly thought of by many naturalists, for it harbors at its roots the earliest salamanders, the pretty Maryland yellowthroat nests in the hollows of its broad leaves, and rare beetles find a congenial home in the shelter it affords.
And what about Edwin Way Teale? He wrote a whole chapter (Green Fire) devoted to the skunk cabbage in his Days Without Time, and he also briefly described it in his Circle of the Seasons under the date February 6:
In a dozen places along the swamp trail today, I see skunk cabbage already spearing upward out of the black, partially frozen soil. Each year, its mottled spathes rise as the advance guard of spring. Within theese hoods, the fleshy slowers soon will form. First the flower, then the leaf—that is the odd reversal of events in the life of this plant pioneer.
Finally, my imaginary Flora would have a copy of this painting of a skunk cabbage by Jasper Francis Cropsey:

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