Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spring ephemerals - Skunk cabbage (part I)

What: It feels so good to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide once again! The spring ephemerals have already emerged and are starting to blossom. Their vibrant greens have given me pause, and I've been thinking about what exactly it means to be a spring ephemeral - what adaptations I'd need to survive. If I were an ephemeral I'd want nutrient rich soil to fuel quick growth, some gnarly chemicals to prevent browsers from gobbling up the first green thing they'd seen in 6 months, a bulb, rhizome, or root that could store copious amounts of energy to emerge quickly in the first warm weather of spring, to be small so growth didn't require excessive energy or time, to reproduce vegetatively in case it was a cold spring and insect pollinators weren't out, and a way of attracting pollinators. So there are definitely some adaptive patterns between our different ephemerals that all allow them to take advantage of that brief moment in a year when the ground is warm and the maple leaves still share the branches with the flowers.

Oh, and a spring ephemeral refers to herbaceous perennial plants (above ground parts die back each year) that have a lifespan shorter than the growing season, usually less than two months in April and May. They have to emerge, leaf out, flower, and go to seed before the canopy closes in and blocks out the shade. I'll be posting updates on spring ephemerals over the next couple of weeks as they continue to emerge in the Burlington area.

The one pictured above is a skunk cabbage (Symplcarpus foetidus). Naturalists love to note this plant's ability to generate its own heat to warms itself up on the cold late winter/early spring days to jump start its growth. I was fascinated by the rotting smell of its flower and swarm of blue bottle flies (Calliphora vomitoria) circling around (pictured above). The ravine I was in grades from ash/maple/oak to hemlock/yellow birch. There's considerably less skunk cabbage 'neath the hemlocks, and the few that were there were considerably further behind in terms of development.

Where: I was finding the skunk cabbage on small flood banks of a brook at Red Rocks. Soils were very silty sands, enriched from calcium rich bedrock upslope. Also seemed higher density in alluvial areas where movement downslope (not just downstream) was enriching the soil.

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