MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
Oh, I see a really good one right here in front of us.
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.
Ta-da, okay, finally.
It's a Skunk Cabbage.
And they're very simple, big, green and fleshy. They look like a giant Hosta.
And bending down to get a closer look, it becomes clear where the name Skunk Cabbage comes from.
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.
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.
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.
They're rich-green and then just speckled very heavily with that really deep maroon red, sort of mahogany color.
It's what these flowers do that sets them apart.
They were already probably popping up out of the ground in January.
January? These things come up in January? Nothing comes up in January.
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.
If you look through an infrared camera, the flower is incandescent, blazing at 70 degrees even in frigid January.
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.
It will melt through the snow and ice?
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.
The plants do this by using an oxygen-burning metabolic pathway just like animals use.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And for photos of the Skunk Cabbage, along with other first flowers of spring, check out our website, metroconnection.org
Time for a very quick break, but when we get back...
You have ten people on the track at all times. You have eight blockers, four from each team, two jammers, one from each team.
Coming out to play on the roller derby track, it's just ahead on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5
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