Monday, May 16, 2022

Nature's Hotheads

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Biodiversity, Biological Evolutio, History of Sciencen

Ed Hessler

By the time I post this,  the leaves of the small populations of  resident Minnesota eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) will have passed their peak. I hope you saw them in the snow.

Twin Cities Dr. Craig Bowron is an internist who wrote an essay for MinnPost that tells us all about these fascinating but stinky plants. Minnesota is at the northern and western range of the eastern skunk cabbage which "Grows only in moist swampy lowlands, the kind of places where the coldest and densest air of the night settles out and intensifies its chill."

The plant looks out of place and remind me of exotic places like the tropics of imagination. They were plants I looked for when I was a kid on rambles in the wetlands "up the hill".  This colorful and strange appearing plant was  reminder of how close spring was.

Bowron's essay describes their ecology, life cycle and reminds us that this plant's spring behavior is about genes. The only goal is to get pollinated and they co-opt some insects to do the cross-pollination work. While doing this work there is a pay-off for some of the insects, too. Bowron includes a link to a readable essay in the magazine Natural History by Robert Knutson who was the first to study their heating and respiration patterns. 

Knutson describes the skunk cabbage's ecology (including the surface anatomy of their stem and root), evolutionary relationships, insect and spider visitors, how he did his research/findings, the likely earliest description, and how its seeds germinate and grow.

Another splendid essay by Craig Holdredge of The Nature Institute published in Context #4 (Fall, 2000) includes additional information and useful drawings of and about the root system, fruit heads, and skunk cabbage development. To be able to read Knutson's description of the digging up of a skunk cabbage root system and to see the drawing by Holdredge is one of the pleasures of reading the essays.

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