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Ode to the Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage blooming by Stony Creek along Reflection Trail. Notice how the flower resembles a spiky ball. This unique and odiferous plant dots our trails with its pungent personality and makes one reconsider what beauty really is.

As through my window daylight spread and birds broke out in song,
I forced my eyes to open and thought, I’ve been inside too long.
I cannot go to work today, T.V. has no fascination,
I cannot endure this solitude, I need some recreation.
Alas! I cry where shall I go? What place has what I seek?
It’s over there not far, I swear, the drive to Stony Creek!
Its lake, its trails they call to me, I need only pay remittance
The Toller says, “Enjoy your day, but please, keep social distance.”
My pulse doth rise, my cheeks do flush, my skin no longer pale,
As in the distance, I behold, the Nature Center Trail.
Along the path as I do hike, my mind begins to think,
Then by the swamp my nostrils flare, Gadzooks! What is that stink?

I think that it is safe to say that we are all a little weird, and I mean that in the best way. We, as individuals, all have something about us that sets us apart from one another. Something that someone may call odd, or different. Those quirks of ours create our personality, and, at the end of the day, make us all totally unique, and that’s wonderful. I don’t want to imagine a world where everyone is an exact copy. Diversity is, as they say, the spice of life and is what makes life a worthwhile experience. The same holds true for the natural world. How many of you, the reader, would take time out of your day to go outside if there was only one kind of tree? Only one species of fish that swam in the water? Only one type of bird in the sky? The weirdness, the uniqueness is what, in my opinion, brings us out into nature. We seek the difference, the diversity of our wild world to calm us, refresh us, energize us, and teach us.

I’d wager that the weirdest, the most unique life within the Metroparks is the Skunk Cabbage. If you’ve walked our trails, you have seen, or at least smelled this peculiar plant. When we think of plants, we think of spring blooms, beautiful flowers, pleasant scents, and growth. In Nature’s infinite diversity, it has created a plant that does absolutely none of the things we think plants do. For starters, Skunk Cabbage blooms in the late winter, but how can that occur when there is snow covering the ground? Another oddity this plant claims is the ability to create its own heat…Let me say that again for the people in the back, this plant gets hot, so hot that it melts the snow that covers it. Skunk cabbage uses a process called cyanide resistant cellular respiration to raise their temperature by up to 60 degrees above air temperature, and that’s just plain weird. Skunk Cabbage also lacks what most would call a beautiful bloom. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when I gaze upon it, it resembles a set of devil horns, as if Old Scratch himself is rising from the depths. If you’ve ever smelled Skunk Cabbage, you know that its odor is far from pleasing, lying somewhere between a skunk’s spray and overcooked garlic. But that scent is its saving grace. When we think of pollinators, we think of butterflies and bees that are attracted to the sweet nectar of the flower. The rotting stench of the Skunk Cabbage attracts is own kind of pollinator… flies and other insects who’d like to dine on a carcass, or something that resembles that smell, thus ensuring the plant’s reproduction. The last odd trait of this already odd plant is how it grows throughout the years. Almost every plant in the forest grows upwards, in an attempt to have a monopoly on sunlight, but this lovable weirdo grows downward with each passing year. The roots of the plant contract and pull each year’s growth beneath the soil, and help to stabilize the streambanks and wetlands in which they grow.

The Skunk Cabbage’s weirdness, its oddities, have guaranteed its survival since before the Ice Age. It has embraced its uniqueness and flourished, a lesson that I think everyone can benefit from. The next time you come to Stony Creek, stop and smell the stink, immerse yourself in the diversity of nature, and embrace your weirdness. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Written by Jake Harm, Interpreter at Stony Creek Metropark

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