Thursday, January 21, 2010

Swamp Things

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is not really a cabbage at all but a swamp-dwelling member of the Arum family known more for its bad smell than its good looks. This late winter bloomer has a rare property that greatly interests scientists: It is one of the few plants that can generate heat by burning starch in special cells. How does it manage to stay a cozy 60 degrees to 77 degrees F, despite the chilly nights? The answer is not entirely clear, but Kikuatsu Ito and Takanori Ito, of Iwate University in Japan, recorded minute-by-minute temperatures and discovered an order to the variations. They named it the 'skunk cabbage algorithm'. Researchers are now testing a thermostat that makes use of the algorithm. If a plant's brain can be tapped to regulate our air conditioning and heating systems, just imagine what other secrets our swamps and gardens are keeping.

Article by Pam Rich
Facts about Symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage:
  • one of the first plants to bloom in the spring
  • its flowers are often partly or whooly covered by last year's fallen leaves
  • it is fly pollinated, hence its 'skunky' odor
  • leaves emerge after the flowers
  • habitat is wet woods, swamps, streamsides
  • grows 1 to 2 feet high
  • the flower is a spathe, 3 to 5 inches high, purplish-brown and green
  • blooms in February to April
  • native to eastern North America to Nova Scotia

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