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When in doubt, ask the skunk cabbage

A 19th century writer, Alexandre Dumas was asked whence came the drive and energy for his prolific literary output. “I don’t know,” he responded. “Ask a plum tree how it produces plums.”
These days, as winter has lingered with snow and icy temperatures, one might ask this question of some herbaceous plant-family members. Skunk cabbage, a wildflower native of the eastern US deciduous forest region blooms in mid to late winter, defying snow and frozen ground and frigid air temperatures. It is among a very few flower species which have learned some tricks, over the 470 million-year span since the green plants moved on land, to generate their own heat.
Skunk cabbage stokes its furnace so effectively that it melts away snow and ice in a circular patch around itself, the result of dramatically increasing its respiration rate and rapidly burning starch from its underground stem. Botany researcher Roger Knutson studied the plant and its winter-flowering habit for nearly a decade. “At air temperatures near freezing,” he noted, “a seemingly inactive skunk cabbage spadix is using oxygen and burning food at a rate nearly equal to that of a hummingbird.” A thick, fleshy hood (spathe) surrounds the flower parts (spadix), insulating them so well that the interior retains a nearly constant, 72 to 74 degree temperature, “regardless of the temperature of surrounding air and soil.” It seems to have “not only a furnace but a thermostat as well,” Knutson notes. The year’s first nectar and pollen await honeybees and early spring insects in its “tiny island of dependable, near-tropical warmth.”
As well, its subterranean workings are remarkable. A massive stem stores the food its leaves produce during the summer. Hundreds of pencil-size, contractible roots extend down and out from it.
After anchoring themselves in the soil, they “shorten in unison,” wrinkling their surfaces and pulling the large stem deep underground where the food larder for winter blossoming will be safe from frost.
So sturdy and enduring is skunk cabbage, in bogs and other wetlands where it made its home, that individual plants can live hundreds of years. As another 20th century botanist attested: “Thus it happens that the skunk cabbage that is seen today growing unpretentiously in any bog may not improbably have occupied that very spot long years before Columbus set foot upon our shores and may continue there a thousand years and more from now if only the fates are kind.”
Alas, they haven’t been. Most historic wetlands were drained long ago and development for human “progress” steadily eats away at those still left. Against bulldozers in their erstwhile home, even this plant’s remarkable soil anchoring and other adaptations for life in a harsh world cannot endure. Tennessee now has it hanging on precariously in a few places in three counties in our region, its conservation status “extremely rare and critically imperiled.”
In our modern habit of earth consumption for more human “convenience” contraptions, the inexorable displacement of humble skunk cabbage and other plants and wildlife represents a loss of priceless value.