Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Skunk Cabbages Reborn in October

     Readers of this blog will recall that this year I've been following the growth and decay of the skunk cabbages in the woods behind my house on the island. I've posted photos and updates throughout the growing season, and I've consulted botany books to learn about its lifecycle. My previous entry on the skunk cabbages showed them on Sept. 3 with the leaves in an advanced state of decay or dissolution, and I assumed that the next entry would show a photo of the swampy area without a trace of them. When I went out there a few days ago my first sight was, indeed, of a swampy area with no trace of the skunk cabbage leaves that were decaying and dissolving a month earlier:

     But as I got closer in, I saw something that surprised me. Look at the lower part of the photo above, in the center. The plants are sending up spathes as they had in the early springtime. After photographing these (see below), I wondered whether their lifecycle had become confused by the recent rains and warm weather, so I searched the Internet to see if I could learn more about it. Was this an unusual case, an early skunk cabbage resurrection? 

     A scientist named Craig Holdrege has made a study of the skunk cabbage, and written about its lifecyle; but his essay does not mention this phenomenon. Mr. Holdrege is a professor and head of The Nature Institute, in upstate New York, so I emailed him on the chance that he might be willing to take the time to let me know what I was seeing, and what I was not seeing. I sent him this photo of the spathes with the new growth. He kindly replied the next day, and here is part of what he wrote: "Not by any means all, but some skunk cabbage plants let the tips of the buds emerge in late summer and they then stay dormant over the winter. I observe this every year in the area that I often go to.  Many people don't notice this because they don't tend to look for skunk cabbage in the late summer.  You're the second person who has written about this to me in the last couple of days... Why some partially emerge and others don't? I have no idea. In any case I see that the aboveground buds open and develop fine in the following spring." I will watch them over the winter and into the spring.

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