Thursday, May 14, 2009

Skunk cabbage


A sure sign of spring is the skunk cabbage. It's alarmingly vigorous and full-grown for so early in the year, like some kind of alien plant from the hothouse of Venus, and I've often half-wondered (this is the state in which you have a slightly nagging question but don't bother to find the answer) why. As in usual in nature, there's no one answer but a lovely circle of them. First, the plant is one of the few that can generate its own heat, thus melting its way up through frozen ground and prospering while others shiver. Second, it has contractile roots that more or less pull the stem deeper into the mud; adult plants, therefore, grow down as much as up, making them strong and nearly ineradicable. Finally, a broken leaf produces a pungent odor which, along with generation of heat, attracts the early insects for pollination. Nearly perfect Darwinian survival, I'd say. Also some Emersonian self-reliance and initiative, not to mention good marketing.

Fortunately, it's incredibly plain (except of course for the sight of thrilling green where nothing else is). If it were as beautiful as it is tough, the world might well be covered by now, from swamps to gardens to domination in a blitz of invasive marketing. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Skunk cabbage sequesters carbon better than asphalt, is better-looking, and is only marginally smellier.

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