Sunday, April 09, 2006

Who's Eating the Skunk Cabbage in the Stoco Fen?

I went back to the Fen yesterday morning to see how the skunk cabbage are progressing. Many more are up, and more have opened, but very little progress in the leafing out. Perhaps because the week was cool (continues today, overnight temps well below freezing, daytime highs in the single digits (above 0C).

What was most interesting though was the devastation to some of the plants.
When I first noticed a clump of broken up spathes (outer covering, protecting the flowers) I thought that someone must have stepped on them. A closer look, a little thought, I saw that not only had some of the spathes been broken, but the pieces had, in some cases, been tossed aside. A vandal with a stick? Strange recreation--strange place for it.

Then I noticed that the flowers and spadix of some plants had been eaten--in one case, down to the stalk. No nibbles on the spathes that I could see, they were without exception broken or torn.

Who would do this? A little research revealed not too much. Bears will eat these plants, it is said, but most often it is reported that they dig them up and eat the roots. Deer too will eat them--but this was not the work of deer. Didn't look like the style of a bear either, even if bears also eat the spadix and flowers. I would expect much less delicate damage from either bears or deer. I would also expect a track or two from either, even in these not good tracking conditions.

On who else might eat these plants, only some vague references to birds and furry critters.

I suspect that it must have been either raccoons or skunks. Something, at any rate, with paws that could get hold of the edges of the spathe and give it a rip. The smell of the plant, kind of skunky I thought, has also been compared to the smell of rotting meat, evolved to attract flies. But skunks and racoons might well be attracted by this smell as well. Canids (coyotes, foxes) too, but again, the method of harvest look wrong, as did the nibbles on the spadix.

A mystery. A guess. Please leave a comment if you know anything about this, or have a guess of your own about the perpetrators.


Endment said...

Fascinating - I haven't got a clue but will be watching closely and hope someone has the answer

Anonymous said...

I've never seen an animal eating Skunk Cabbage, but I did a quick online search too and found a nice page on the plant (see link below). It mentions that bear, wild turkey and Canada Geese will eat it. The reference to geese is interesting as, thinking back to when we kept several Embden geese, they went around my gardens destroying plants by nipping them off close to the ground. They really did a number of plants like daylilies and irises, chopping them off quite cleanly much the way the Skunk Cabbage in your photos has been cut down. The only other thing I can think of -- not sure if they would eat the plant, but seems sort of likely -- would be Muskrat as they do eat a lot of different wetland plants such as waterlily roots, etc... Just a guess though.

Pamela Martin said...

Thanks for the comment Endment--not sure we'll get a definitive answer for this one. Though Bev has another candidate.

Thanks for the link Bev--good article. Muskrat! I hadn't thought of that one, but there's bound to be muskrat in the area, and they do have the right kind of capabilities to leave the sign I saw, I think.

Ontario Wanderer said...

I don't recall ever seeing skunk cabbages that had been eaten. There is a link to a skunk cabbage study on my wildflower website ( but I don't remember anything in the article about skunk cabbages being eaten. You might try e-mailing the author of the article and asking him if there is nothing in the article. Good luck and do let us know if you find out!