June 23, 2013

Webisode, professor show 'coolness' of smelly plant

PLATTSBURGH — SUNY Plattsburgh’s Dr. Rachel Schultz has joined forces with a former faculty member in a video about a wetlands plant with a distinct odor: skunk cabbage.

The assistant professor of environmental science came together with Dr. Chris Martine, now the David Burpee chair in plant genetics and research at Bucknell University, in “Undead Zombie Flowers of Skunk Cabbage: Plants Are Cool, Too!,” the third in a series created by Martine.

In it, Schultz discusses the plant with a smell that Martine calls “a complex bouquet reminiscent of fresh garlic mixed with decomposing zombie flesh.”

Filmed in the Adirondack Park and in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Rugar Woods, Schultz looks beyond that smell to the plant’s ability to change temperature and melt snow. It uses an accelerated respiration rate to generate heat and can get as warm as 70 degrees, even when the weather is freezing.

Fortune also played a role in the project, according to Schultz.

“The Friday before the filming, GIS support specialist Eileen Allen had just gotten a thermal imager, which creates temperature maps using an infrared camera,” Schultz said. “Eric Leibensperger (assistant professor of environmental science) had the brilliant idea to use the camera.”

Using the imager, Schultz was able to pinpoint the plant’s hot spots for the camera.

Although the video was released in April, Schultz has already used it in class as an introduction to a plant ecology lab on the skunk cabbage population by the Saranac River.

“The students loved seeing the video and then going out to investigate the skunk cabbages,” she said.

The webisode also found a fan in SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling.

“Who wouldn’t want to be a botanist after seeing this video?” he said.

“You get to tramp around in the woods, study really weird plants — and make up cool songs about them,” he added, making a special reference to the theme song, created and sung by Martine.

Schultz hopes the video inspires others to search for and become aware of plant life.

“These plants are all over, whether in urban, suburban or remote areas,” she said. “We really can find wonder and these learning opportunities right where we are.”

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO View the video at

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