Man at the vet: “My dog doesn’t have a nose.”
Vet: “How does he smell?”
In this column, we’ve had several members of the philodendron family – the “Araceae” – as subjects of wonder. The Philodendron family is large, with several thousand species.
You may remember when we had the golden club, Orontium aquaticum, which is a native member of various wetlands here in the southeast. And surely everyone knows our delicate Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which is common in the eastern half of the United States.
Most members of the family are, however, decidedly tropical, and it is among them that we find some of our favorite cultivated plants: the climbing philodendrons and the mother-in-law (Dieffenbachia) are well known indoors, while like colorful caladiums and elephants – the ears are on the outside. Additionally, important food sources are provided by the starchy tubers of taro (Colocasia esculenta) and malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolia), commonly eaten in tropical regions. The “aroid” species have a number of things in common, the most important being the characters of the floral structures. Typically, when an aroid flowers, it produces a stem-like spike with many small flowers. This is called the spadix. The spadix is almost always surrounded by a green or otherwise colored bract, called a spathe.
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This week’s Mystery Plant is a perfectly good temperate aroid. It is native to a fairly wide area, from Wisconsin and eastern Canada to Tennessee and western North Carolina, where it likes to grow in moist, swampy places, usually with a canopy of trees above. Two, possibly three, species of the same genus in Japan and China. Ours is one of the very first species to flower in the United States
It sends its purple-brown spathe through the soft mud in which it is firmly anchored, sometimes generating enough heat to melt any snow that might still be present. The spathe soon opens, revealing its spadix and flowers to any very early flies and other insects that might be interested in visiting. You have to remember that there are not too many pollinators available when there is still snow on the ground; such an early flowering obviously capitalizes on the pollinators that are actually nearby.
Insects may be attracted by a stinky odor given off by the spadix. After about a day, the young leaves grow upwards, very tender at first, but widening a bit and taking on (a little) the shape of a cabbage leaf. Generally, only a few fruits (berries) will be produced for a given spadix. After flowering, the leaves remain all summer, and if you happen to find some somewhere in the woods and pinch a leaf tip, you will notice a pronounced stinky odor, the same as that given off during flowering.
Yes, it’s a weird plant. I don’t know if anyone has ever wanted to try eating it, although you can bet it did. Plants have however been used medicinally for a variety of ailments. Otherwise, it is something of a curiosity, and one might be interested in transplanting it into their bog garden. But that almost never works, because plants hate being moved. Leave the wildflowers, stinky or not, where they are.
Answer: “Stinky cabbage”, Symplocarpus foetidus.
John Nelson is the retired curator of the AC Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. A public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.biol.sc.edu or email [email protected]