The Spathe (In Devotion to Skunk Cabbage)

by Kerissa Fuccillo Battle

Rising up out of the frozen wetland, the blood-red curled tip of the spathe cups the spadix. This spiky knob is the plant's flowering organ, and like any other bids its pollinators to feast, and to serve. It seems too early in the season for the flies, bees and beetles to be out. Indeed there is little to eat and the cold could be lethal were they to linger somewhere else. But the spadix of the skunk cabbage knows how to make its own heat -- like a warm-blooded animal. There are only a handful of plant species in the world which have managed this feat of evolution, and none quite as brilliantly as this sensuous swamp-dweller. Inside the spathe, twenty degrees warmer than the surrounding air, the irresistible rotting flesh scent can gather, and then pulse out across the snow. The insects follow this track and find enough sweet nectar and protein-packed pollen to allow them to fly to the next spadix and feed some more. Sheltered inside the mottled-flesh hood, half hidden in the snow, they complete their end of the bargain.


Some of the seeds that will now be born will feed the grouse, the pheasant, perhaps the last of the bobwhites. But some will grow, and grow older still, and perhaps outlast the surrounding trees, their root systems deep and old and full of future heat. If you were to unfurl the tightly packed coil of leaves later in the season, you would see the future buds of the spathe, smaller and smaller as you count the seasons to come with each layer. The leaves spiral open as the spathe withers, bright green and full of water. They don’t desiccate, but rather dissolve when it is their time, the final triumph of their watery nature expressed into the soil to feed the summer beings to come. But while the spathe still pulses red and purposeful, the leaves must wait their turn.


Spathes are not flower petals, though we seem to think they are when we set the Poinsettia and the Peace lily on our holiday tables. But we never ask skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, to grace our banquets, a would-be centerpiece of gnarled, stinking heart-fist beside the place mats. No matter. They don’t belong anywhere but here, in the frozen muck where we can see them cracking through layers of ice and marvel at the boldness and ingenuity of a being that can make heat from what it collected last summer.


Despite the late Winter cold, inside the spathe, the gnats and the bees perform their ancient dance, fueled by heat and need, scent and seed, a mutuality arranged by future generations. No one sees it but the passing fox, and the odd swamp-walkers like you and me, who know that the vernal window is cracking open now to welcome us in.



Illustration by Heather Stephenson


References:

https://www.natureinstitute.org/article/craig-holdrege/skunk-cabbage

https://www.nybg.org/content/uploads/2021/02/NYCEcoFlora_Symplocarpus.pdf


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