Sunday, March 20, 2016

222. Skunk Cabbage: Its Significance, Its Charm


Another surprise minipost!  Here is a short poem on an unlikely subject:

             Skunk Cabbage

In March
In wet spots in woods
The first wildflower of the season appears
An odd-looking thing
Mottled purple-brown without petals
Suggestive of a monk in a cowl
A hoodlum in a hoodie
Or the gaping mouth of a prehistoric monster.
Its name: skunk cabbage.
Flies love it, humans don’t;
It stinks.
A precursor
Weird, smelly, ugly
Of the magic, the miracle of spring.

Take note, all victims of depression
All chronic pessimists
All drooping, mournful souls:
Today’s ugly
May herald tomorrow’s beautiful,
Today’s weird
Tomorrow’s wondrous,
Today’s stench
Tomorrow’s fragrance of entrancing bliss.
For this lesson, a plethora of thanks
To skunk cabbage
For its weirdness, its ugliness
Its novel and inspiring
Stink.


     Skunk cabbage, the endearing popular name for Symplocarpus foetidus, is indeed the first wildflower to appear in these parts – in March or even earlier, at the same time as forsythia -- and yes, foetidus does indeed mean “stinky.”  Though at first glance it seems to be a flowerless and stemless plant, the stems are buried in the mud, and tucked inside the mottled, shell-like leaf called a spathe, is a rounded organ called the spadix, on which the flowers appear.  I have often seen the plant in wet spots in woods in and around the city, always abuzz with flies.  It is of the Arum family, which includes a more familiar spring flower, Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

File:Symplocarpus foetidus Zazensou in nobusegatake 2008-4-4.JPG
The spadix is visible inside the spathe.
     Once the skunk cabbage flowers have been pollinated by insects (above all, those buzzing flies), the spathe crumbles away, and the spadix becomes enlarged into a compound fruit.  Meanwhile the plant’s leaves poke up out of the wet soil, coiled at first but then unfolding to become big and broad and often bright green.  Seen from a distance, they look like they would be delicious in a salad, but I doubt if anyone has ever foraged them, for if you crush them, they too stink.  (Black bears and snapping turtles are said to eat them, if hard up for food, but they would have to be really desperate.) 

File:Symplocarpus foetidus 003.JPG
SB_Johnny

     In time the leaves also crumble away, and skunk cabbage, the precursor of spring, is consigned for a year to oblivion, as smaller, more delicate, and less smelly spring flowers appear in the woods.  But I have a warm place in my heart for the plant, since it does announce spring while winter still holds fast, and its structure is a fascinating example of the weird diversity of nature.  Daffodils and tulips have their bards, but I suspect that I am the only one to devote a whole poem to this stinky harbinger of spring.  So three cheers for skunk cabbage; its appearance means that spring is on its way.

     Coming soon:  A brief sequel to post #214, “Fraudster, or the Immigrant’s Dream Come True?”  Martin Shkreli redux, the sexy and very arrogant young entrepreneur who has been indicted on charges of securities fraud.  Never a dull moment, with Mr. Shkreli on the scene.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder