Primitive, Striking And Smelly: Cozying Up With The Skunk Cabbage (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Primitive, Striking and Smelly: Cozying Up With the Skunk Cabbage

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:13:11
Cherry blossoms might one of the most telling signs of spring in D.C., but when it comes to plant life coming out for the season, one specimen races to the front of the pack. If you see it, it's pretty striking-looking. If you smell it, it's pretty vile. It arises out of the swamp long before anything else does by producing its own heat. Environmental reporter Sabri Ben-Achour took a walk down by the Potomac to learn this particular plant's secret.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

13:13:40
In Turkey Run Park on the shores of the Potomac, Bill McLaughlin is leading me through a windy rivers-edge trail to a patch of soggy bog.

MR. BILL MCLAUGHLIN

13:13:47
Oh, I see a really good one right here in front of us.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:13:50
McLaughlin is the plant curator for the U.S. Botanic Garden and we're searching for an ancient, foul-smelling, primitive plant that existed back when the continents were still all in one piece.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:02
Ta-da, okay, finally.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:04
It's a Skunk Cabbage.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:07
And they're very simple, big, green and fleshy. They look like a giant Hosta.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:12
And bending down to get a closer look, it becomes clear where the name Skunk Cabbage comes from.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:16
So, of course, I think you might accidentally be breaking a leaf there by kneeling and you're going to get a whiff of something a little bit unpleasant.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:24
Oh.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:24
Yeah, it's not good. I don't even want to tell you what it's supposed to imitate, but it does smell sufficiently like a skunk.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:33
These beautifully stinky plants may be one of the longest-lived herbaceous plants in North America. They can grow to be hundreds of years old. But what is most remarkable about them are their flowers. It's not just that they're pretty, which they are. They look like sort of twisted claw-shaped Calla Lilies.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:48
They're rich-green and then just speckled very heavily with that really deep maroon red, sort of mahogany color.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:54
It's what these flowers do that sets them apart.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:14:57
They were already probably popping up out of the ground in January.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:15:01
January? These things come up in January? Nothing comes up in January.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:15:03
Yeah, you know, Skunk Cabbage is a real exception and it has a secret weapon against the cold. It's able to do what it does so early in the year because it makes heat.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:15:13
If you look through an infrared camera, the flower is incandescent, blazing at 70 degrees even in frigid January.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:15:20
Yeah, to volatilize the aromas and they're not pretty aromas that draw flies and Carrion Beetles as their pollinator. But it's making the heat even before the flower opens at all and it's doing it to break through even ice or snow.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:15:36
It will melt through the snow and ice?

MCLAUGHLIN

13:15:37
Oh yeah, definitely. if you come down after a light icing or snow event in February, you'll see these big circles around the flower that's popping out of the ground.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:15:46
The plants do this by using an oxygen-burning metabolic pathway just like animals use.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:15:50
It's basically respiring as much oxygen as an animal the same weight and it does that by pulling all of the reserves it has out of the ground, the carbohydrates, and burning them.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:15:59
The whole process is extremely energy-intensive, but if you're going to attract pollinators in the dead of winter, you have to pull out all the stops. And it works inside the flower beetles and flies feed and create winter love nests and spiders sometimes move in to feed on the insects. It's probably been this way for more than 100 million years.

MCLAUGHLIN

13:16:18
It's had a good formula. It's had a nice long run and I'm sure it will still be here for many, many millions of years once we're gone.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:16:23
For this season, though, the Skunk Cabbage flowers are almost gone. In just a few days, the last of them will have dissolved away back into the bogs where they sprouted from. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

13:16:37
And for photos of the Skunk Cabbage, along with other first flowers of spring, check out our website, metroconnection.org

SHEIR

13:17:00
Time for a very quick break, but when we get back...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

13:17:06
You have ten people on the track at all times. You have eight blockers, four from each team, two jammers, one from each team.

SHEIR

13:17:08
Coming out to play on the roller derby track, it's just ahead on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5
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