Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hey! Who's Eating Our First Flower of Spring?

I confess:  I've hunkered down in a sulk much of this week, hardly venturing outdoors at all, so I haven't had much to blog about.  Darn this icy snow and continued cold!  Not a single sign of spring seems to be budging in the woods.  But at last we've had a few days (and even nights!) above freezing, so some of the snow has started to go.  Many woodland trails, though, are still icy and uninviting, as this photo of Bog Meadow Nature Trail reveals.

I went to Bog Meadow today, in desperate need of finding at least ONE blooming plant of Skunk Cabbage.  There's a tiny stream that follows the trail, and I figured its banks would be teeming with the bulging spathes of our very first flower of spring.  They've always been there in years past.

Well, I searched and searched and finally spied the tell-tale red of some mottled spathes right in the middle of the stream.  Peering closer to see if the spadices within had ripened enough to bear pollen, I was disappointed to discover that the spathes had been ripped apart, with no sign of any spadices within.

I continued my search for Skunk Cabbage in a springy section of woods, and again and again discovered the spathes bitten open, the spadices long gone.

Whoever was eating the flowers, was also devouring the unfurling leaves.

The likely culprit seemed to be deer, especially since the surrounding snow was thoroughly trodden by the deers' signature two-toed hooves.

But how can deer manage to eat Skunk Cabbage?  If I were to take a bite of one, my mouth would burn for hours, lips and tongue stabbed by the calcium oxalate crystals this plant contains.  I might more comfortably eat a piece of prickly cactus.

Curious to know how deer get away with it, I searched the internet and found a site from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,  informing me that deer do indeed eat a LOT of Skunk Cabbage, especially in spring when they crave the protein-rich spadices, after the meager diet they've subsisted on all winter.  According to a wildlife biologist quoted at this site, deer somehow manage to eat many plants that other animals would find chemically or physically noxious, including such intimidatingly prickly plants as Devil's Club.  Apparently, they manage to do this because they eat a huge variety of plants, so that the noxious plants are in effect diluted.

I don't know.  It seems the deer at Bog Meadow were eating an awful lot of Skunk Cabbage.  I could not find a single plant that hadn't been opened and eaten.


threecollie said...

Wow, that is really interesting. We don't seem to have any skunk cabbage around the farm.

The Furry Gnome said...

I've never seen evidence of that, though I see lots of skunk cabbage in the spring. In fact I'll have to go looking for them soon. Sunny today; they may be poking up by the end of the week.

Ellen Rathbone said...

Hm...who'da thunk it?!? Much of our snow is least in open fields. I need to go check along our stream here at work for skunk cabbage, too!

Ron Gamble said...

Hmmm - Very interesting! I checked a skunk cabbage for pollen a week ago here in SE Michigan; but not there yet. I'll have to keep my eye open for this browse potential as we certainly have too many deer.

It makes me wonder, many of us have been told about this "rumored" calcium oxalate effect; although I've never tried it! (Anybody?!?)

I'm not blindly "buying into" their statement about non-affect due eating a "huge variety of plants"...

I've seen evidence in the field that raccoons consume the mature skunk cabbage spadices/fruits/seeds, which appear to pass thru their digestive tract looking relatively unchanged.

All very interesting! Ron Gamble

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks so much for your comments, threecollie, Furry, Ellen, and Ron. I'm always glad to know you come along on my adventures.

Regarding the noxiousness of Skunk Cabbage, Ron, I personally have never been tempted to taste it, but the fellow quoted in the link I posted compared it to chomping down on a mouthful of needles, and it hurt him for hours. I, too, was not satisfied with the explanation that deer can tolerate it because the toxins are moderated by the "huge variety of plants" that they eat. But I can't come up with any other explanation.

Ron Gamble said...

Skunk cabbage follow-up:
The past couple weeks I've watched the skunk cabbage mature in several areas as I've been in the field looking for antler shed, etc. Plenty of plants, plenty of deer sign; but no sign of damage to the plants like you observed. I handled plants enough to note the leaves "break off" easily; but the spadix, not so easily. Maybe southeast Michigan deer don't like/need the cabbage, I don't know. (And no, I didn't taste the spathe to verify tongue response.)