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Name: Emily
Location: N/A
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I am a senior homeschool student from southeastern Pennsylvania and am doing an independent biology research project in our woods (predominantly wetlands). The main goal was to get a feel for the various species of birds in the area by performing a census, but also to observe other animals and plants. Part of the trail I followed went through one of the small marshes. (I'm not sure "marsh" is the technically correct term for the area.) It is composed of humps of marsh grass, skunk cabbage, wild rose thickets, cattails, jewel weed (touch-me-nots), some ferns, and other weeds that grow two to three feet in height. It is wet, but there is not usually much water sitting on top of the mud. Occasionally throughout the marsh I saw brown/black, spherical plant growths laying on the ground. They are about 3-4" in diameter and have a distinctively textured shell. The shell is thin and the inside there is a white substance somewhat resembling the meat of a coconut in appearance . Mixed with the white "stuff" are little green/brown balls about the size of a small marble which I assumed were seeds. One day when I was walking through the marsh I noticed that one of these things had been ripped open. It looked as if something had eaten some of the white stuff and a few of the seeds were spread around. As I went further I saw the same thing again. The next day the white innards were almost all gone, but all the seeds were still there. I was wondering if you know what this plant growth is or to what plant it might belong. Later I went out trying to find more of these, but by that time they had all been opened and all that was left was mostly rotted shells and scattered seeds. I found a lot amongst the cattails, but could not trace them directly to the cattails.

Dear Emily,

Possibly puffballs?

Anthony R. Brach, Ph.D.

Dear Emily,

I am a naturalist/botanist and have seen this plant you have described many times. It is the fruiting structure of the skunk cabbage plant that you previously mentioned. To me these structures look like a miniature pineapple. The round brown objects are the seeds, as you thought. Skunk cabbage in the Chicago region prefers wet shaded flood plains known by ecologists as riparian habitat. I am familiar with a large colony of this plant that is located in a densely shaded site near a small braided (many branched) stream that flows most of the year.

Skunk cabbage is the first flower to bloom in the spring. It sometimes may bloom in late winter and, on rare occasions, in December! Mid March is the best time to see this unusual plant in bloom. The flower is a thick, flesh colored (brown red), hood like spathe surrounding a short club like object which has many flowers. This club like object is the mature fruiting structure you have found. The spathe, which protected the young flowers from the cold early in its development, is no longer needed and has withered away. New spathes with next year's embryonic flowers enclosed are probably present at this time but are are likely to be green, very small, and closed. They are pointed on the top. Mature flowers have the spathe open to one side, are deep brown red color, and have a smell of what some insects think is rotting flesh. Carrion feeding insects are attracted to the smell and color and serve as pollinators. The growth of this flower creates heat which is effective not only at disseminating the odor, but also in melting snow if it is touching the spathe. People perceive this odor as the smell of a skunk. Now you know the origin of the name!

Wayne Vanderploeg

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