Sunday, January 24, 2010

Longhill Swamp Skunk Brunch

For the Virginia Native Plant Society's first field trip of the year, we held a 'Skunk Brunch' at Longhill Swamp to look for the winter blooms of skunk cabbage (symplocarpus foetidus). The VNPS provided donuts, bagles and coffee, and Mother Nature provided clear skies and pleasant (45°) temperatures. We had a very good turnout, over 30 people!

In the back of my truck I set up a display showing some of the intersting plants that can be found in the swamp: marsh-marigold, scouring rush, dwarf wakerobin, royal fern and blueberry, and red maple.
After a brief discussion of the plants we headed into the swamp, making our way through the muck and the thorny greenbriars that were growing everywhere. In the center of the swamp we found hundreds of skunk cabbage clumps in bloom.
You can see from this shot of the swamp last spring after the leaves emerged just how many skunk cabbages there are in the swamp.
The blooms aren't what you'd call beautiful, but they are interesting. Like other dark colored flowers, paw paws for example, they are pollinated mainly by flies who are drawn to the carrion-scented flowers. As you might guess, skunk cabbages are smelly, but only when parts of the plant are torn or crushed. For a more detailed description, check out this site.
One interesting feature of skunk cabbages is that they are heat-producing plants able to melt ice and snow to send up their blooms. One description I read said that skunk cabbages produce heat by uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation from the electron transport system. Don't ask me what that means!

We tried a very crude experiment with a meat thermometer, but the resluts were inconclusive. I think this might have worked better on a much colder day, when there would have been a bigger difference between the temperature of the plant and the surrounding air. Having better equipment would have helped as well.
Skunk cabbages are members of the Araceae family, also known as aroids. An aroid flower is known as a spadix and is typically surrounded by a modified leaf called a spathe. There are many subfamilies in Aracea that include well-known plants like calla lily, peace lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit (below).
Surprisingly, tiny duckweeds are also in this family of plants.
Skunk cabbages are in the subfamily Orontioideae, which also includes another Virginia native, golden club. The spathes of golden club are so small as to be almost indistinguishable.
In addition to the skunk cabbage we talked a bit trees, since many species will be blooming very soon. In my opinion, when maple trees are covered with a red haze in late February, spring has begun. Other early spring bloomers are elm and two members of the Betulaceae or birch family:
river birch (Betula nigra)
American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)
These plants develop their catkins over the winter and will start to open up soon. Inside the swamp we came across another Betulacea member, tag alder (Alnus serrulata). This is a very common shrub that grows along the edges of freshwater wetlands.
After the walk a couple of field trippers got out their binoculars to watch a yellow-rumped wabler that was flitting around the swamp.
And as you can see, the group did well on the snacks—there wasn't much left!
Thank you James City County for giving us permission to visit the swamp and the Christian Life Center for letting us meet in their parking lot!


Linda C. Miller said...

Phillip, thank you so much for the wonderful walk and talk yesterday. Thank you for posting this on your blog...Linda

Susie said...

Hello ~ I thoroughly enjoyed mucking around with the VNPS folks. Several of my VMN members were present, and that always means natural fun! Thanks for the glimpse of Skunk Cabbage emersion. I've only seen that stage in books and only the later leafed-out stage in the field...or swamp:-) Several of us VMN hung on a bit to see birds across the road including Kingfisher, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, and Red-Bellied Woodpecker. A fine day indeed! Susie Engle-Hill

Janet said...

Sounds like it was a great outing. As for your science experiment...perhaps the diffence in temperature from the cabbage to another place in the soil...opposed to the air temp?

Les said...

I am sure at this very minute in a secret lab that some company like Monsanto, ADM or Haliburton are fiddling around with the genome of this species slicing and dicing DNA for a new energy source.

Dawn said...

I am amazed! I've said for years how nice the skunk cabbage looks and boy! I get the sideways glance...thanks for sharing this info.

tina said...

The skunk cabbages are really beautiful. They grew quite commonly in my home state of Maine. I'm sure they grow here but I've not run into them, even at my nature area. I will look closer for them the next time I was there. I plan to do a post on the running cedar too (also at the nature area) and want to tell you again how much I appreciate you helping me out. Your trees seem to be a bit ahead of us but spring is in the air....

Skeeter said...

So much alive and well in the Swamps of Virginia! It looks as though you had a great day of observation. We have had a Yellow-rumped Myrtle Warbler visit us during the winter months in the past but have not seen him this year :(

I had no idea it snowed in Williamsburg! I bet it was so pretty with the gardens all blanket in white! I bet the red berries are from the same tree I saw when we were there a year ago! Was that pic taken near the big veggie garden?

James Golden said...

Phillip, I have the perfect place for a colony of skunk cabbage, but don't want to take it from the wild. Do you know of a reasonably priced source?

How It Grows said...

The winterberries weren't near the veggie garden, they were on the other side of the palace. But there are others scattered all around the garden.

How It Grows said...

James, I got one through mail order but I don't remember the nursery. I've gotten lots of things from online nurseries and have always had good luck.

Aanee @ Flower Delivery Dublin said...

Thanks for the post.
Your have some array of amazing plants and flowers in the blog post.
The images are great, they really give me a sense of being there.

Aanee xxx
Flowers Dublin