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What's up with that?!

David C. Zlesak

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If you are getting tired of long, cold winters you are not alone. The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) generates its own heat (thermogenesis) come late winter/early spring and starts growing. Emerging spathes (modified leaves) contain floral organs and they can melt their way through the snow and ice. Stored energy is used to produce heat and warm growing tissue. This process occurs for up to two weeks and while this is happening temperature in such tissue is well regulated and is typically 36F above the ambient temperature! Why do skunk cabbages do this??? The answer is to attract pollinators. Early emerging insects are drawn to the warmth of these early flowers as well as the unpleasant, carrion-like scent that they emit.

Photo 1: Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

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