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.
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)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!