Monday, March 17, 2008

Skunk Cabbage with a side of Sandhill Cranes

Last Friday as I headed out for a walk, I was giddily hopeful that I would see skunk cabbage in FGB*. One of our earliest springtime flowering plants, I was confident that I would be able to spot it peeping out of the ground near Lake Marmo at the Arboretum. Alas, skunk cabbage, otherwise known as Symplocarpus foetidus was not to be found on Friday morning, but during my walk I was rewarded by flocks of Sandhill cranes swirling through the skies overhead. I had heard rumblings in the avian world that the cranes were beginning to migrate through the area and was delighted to see/hear them!

Wondering about the meaning of the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus, I decided to do a little detective work. According to Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners** (published in 1992), I discovered: Symplocarpus is from the Greek, symploke meaning combination, connection, embrace; and karpos meaning fruit. (According to Stearn: "The ovaries of this swamp-loving perennial herb grow together to make one fruit.") Foetidus does sound a bit more sinister and according to Stearn’s book means the plant is bad-smelling. Some believe the plant’s unusual odor aids in attracting certain pollinators. Another highly unusual and remarkable aspect of this plant is its ability to create its own heat (take that ComEd/Nicor!) and melt its way through frozen ground. As the weather moderates, more unusual plants and creatures will begin to make their grand appearances at the Arboretum. Before you head out for a walk, stop by the Sterling Morton Library to pick up a wildflower or bird identifucation guide today!

* = full glorious bloom
** = The Sterling Morton Library has a number of fascinating resources on the meaning of plant names.

(The First Flowers of Spring by May T. Watts from the Arboretum's Bulletin of Popular Information, v. 20, no. 2, February 1945.)

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