How to

25 April 2017

Skunk Cabbage Gets Head Start on Spring with its own Internal Central Heating

As winter begins to give way to the life-giving season of spring, melting ground ice and making way for the next generation of flora, those plants that manage to get ahead of the curve and begin their growth before others emerge will reap the rewards of near-exclusive access to nutrients and moisture, whilst also taking advantage of an uncluttered environment above the soil to allow them to grow.

However, doing so presents its own challenges in the form of bitter weather and damaging freezes. Therefore, some plants have evolved ingenious solutions to the issue, allowing them to begin their cycle long before less-hardy varieties.

One such plant is the unpleasantly-named skunk cabbage, which actually makes use of its own natural, internal central-heating system to allow it to survive the frosty conditions of late winter and early spring.

The flower, which is in no way related to the cabbage family despite what its name may suggest, is fairly easy to identify due to the way in which it grows through the ice, creating a circle of unfrozen ground around the flower whilst its surroundings remain frozen. This is partly due to the aforementioned internal heating system, and partly due to the way in which the hardy plant actually ‘punches through’ thin coverings of ice, forcing its way to the surface. As the ice retreats further, the flower can be identified by its rhubarb-esque leaves (as described by naturalist Dan Brunton) and a central red ‘spike’ within the flower itself. Failing that, you can also check the smell, from which the plant derives its common name, although do so at your own risk; it’s far from pleasant…

The plant stands 20cm tall when mature and has a root system which stretches approximately a metre down; it is hypothesised that it is this extensive root system which allows the plant to acquire the nutrients and energy necessary to fuel its heating process.

So, we have now arrived at the crux of the article; just how does this heating system work?

It all boils down to biochemistry. Similarly to human cells, the skunk cabbage is abundant in mitochondria, small bodies responsible for the generation of energy. However, unlike our own, the cells of the skunk cabbage also contain an enzyme known as alternative oxidase (AOX). AOX allows the plant to redirect energy in order to generate heat rather than promote growth. Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to slow growth when aiming for an early head start within the local ecosystem, by diverting said energy and creating the heat necessary to break through the ice, the skunk cabbage is then more than able to make up for this momentary dip in growth rate.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.