Spring is inching forward, working its tender way into my consciousness with light shifts and color sparks. The days are noticeably longer, the grass and moss have greened up, a few birds have begun singing, and the wildflower parade is getting started. On a walk last week, I spotted one of the earliest wildflowers rising from the murky muck of a wetland. Skunk cabbage – it may not be a pretty name and all I saw was a handful of muddy buds – but that’s all it took to inject a surge of energy into my step.
Lest you Easterners get confused, the Eastern North America plant called Skunk cabbage isn’t the same as the Western one. They belong to the same family, the Araceae, but the Eastern species looks different and is arguably stinkier – anyone who’s stepped on an Eastern skunk cabbage leaf knows how foul that odor can be!
Both plants have oversized, bold, cabbage-like leaves and dozens of tiny flowers neatly arranged on a spadix – the candle-shaped structure on the left in the photo above. The spadix (or flower spike) is protected by a spathe, which looks like a large petal. Western Skunk cabbage plants sport a bright gold spathe, which is why they’re also called Swamp lanterns.
Interestingly, both plants have close relatives in Asia. The Western species is Lysichiton americanus and its Asian relative is Lysichiton camtschatcensis. The Eastern species is Symplocarpus foetidus, with four other Symplocarpus species in Asia. It’s theorized that Lysichiton and Symplocarpus each migrated across the Bering land bridge millions of years ago, eventually finding their separate territories.
I read somewhere that our Skunk cabbage emits odors that vary with the temperature to help attract different insects for pollination. Amazing, right? It fits with my experience. The first time I photographed Skunk cabbage after moving to the West, I entered what I can only describe as an altered state of consciousness. Expecting a foul odor because of my experience with Skunk cabbage back East, I was surprised to smell what to me was a pleasant odor – not sweet like a rose but heavy, musky, and fragrant. As I got closer to the plants for close-ups I inhaled more and more of the scent and became intoxicated by it. No one else was around. It was just the quiet wetland, hundreds of Skunk cabbage plants heavy with scent, and me. I felt like I was truly communing with the plants.
The next year, I hoped to have the same experience, but no! I have never smelled the same heavy scent again even though I’ve been near large clusters of Skunk cabbage several times. It must have been the temperature – maybe the humidity, too.
But I digress (easy to do with cool plants). I want to introduce another plant that belongs to the same Araceae family: Elephant ears, or Colocasia esculenta. This is the distant cousin in the title of the post. Elephant ears are popular garden plants and are the important root vegetable known as taro, one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans. The starchy, tropical vegetable is a staple across many cultures, from Jamaica to West Africa, India, the Philipines, and beyond. I like Elephant ears because their giant leaves add drama to a little group of potted plants in front of my house. In winter I bring the plant inside. It’s clearly not happy there but it gets by until I can put it back out in the fresh air.
Elephant ears have the same spadix and spathe structure as their distant relatives, Lysichiton and Symplocarpus. This is what distinguishes the family they belong to, the Araceae, or Arums. There are thousands of Arum species, mainly in the tropics. You may be familiar with Jack-in-the-pulpit or Philodendron, both in the Araceae family. The family has been around for more than 100 million years and includes the giant Sumatran Titan arum, or Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) which truly smells rotten when it blooms, once a year at most. A duckweed called Wolffia also belongs to the Araceae and is the smallest flowering plant on the planet!
I wasn’t aware of all this last week when I was busy photographing the leaves of my Elephant ear plant. It’s an appealing subject and that was enough. But later that day I was walking in a forest that gives way to swampy wetlands, thanks to the work of the American beaver. In the muddy wetland, I saw the first Skunk cabbage buds of the year! It occurred to me that it was similar to the Elephant ear I’d been photographing that morning. I delved into google, and here we are. Distant cousins, one biding its time indoors until it can grace the driveway edge and the other just beginning its annual cycle, snuggled in the wet woods.