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Skunk Cabbage :: early spring

posted Feb 11, 2011, 2:43 PM by Administrator Friends of Sauratown Mtns   [ updated Feb 22, 2011, 8:08 AM ]
Just peeking up through the muddy soil is one of our early spring bloomers, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  To the ordinary eye, this plant has no showy flower petals, no sweet fragrance, but it is charming none the less.

A lot of us first learned about skunk cabbage as children. I remember being warned about them on early spring hikes, for the message heralded by this strange looking plant is “if you crush me, I’ll stink up your walk!”


Skunk cabbage is in the Araceae family, along with some of our favorites such as green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) and Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum). It grows in boggy areas from Southern Canada to Northern Georgia, but is a single species.


The roots, which can form a massive tangle (which, by the way, makes attempting to dig and move skunk cabbage futile) contract as they grow, pulling the crown (rhizome) deeper into the mud. This explains why you seldom see the flower stem on a skunk cabbage—it is beneath any leaf litter and often underground. Occasionally you will spot one, but ordinarily the stem is far enough underground that the spathe appears to be stemless, just sitting on the ground.


In early spring the spathe rises from the earth so fast, in a process called “respiration,” that heat is generated by burning carbs stored from the previous year. The spathe has a hooded shape  and as it inflates around the spadix (flower stalk) creates a little “room” that is warm enough to melt surrounding snow. The heat, and the carrion odor, attract any nearby flies or other insects that are active this time of year. The skunk cabbage provides warm room and board for these insects, in return for exchanging pollen with other nearby plants.


This process only lasts for a couple of weeks, after which the leaves begin to unfurl. They can grow quite large, up to three feet, and are inflated with air and water instead of the usual cellulose. They also lack any cuticle (waxy skin), which ordinarily helps plants retain moisture. Therefore, they require a swampy location to keep them inflated long enough to store energy for the following year. Once they have done their job, the capillaries are cut off and the leaves wither into a dark, mushy mess.


Be careful around these plants if you spot them in the park.  They are unique and serve a wonderful purpose, providing warmth and food for insects in early spring.  Without those insects, we might not have such pretty flowers later on.


Katherine Schlosser

Administrator Friends of Sauratown Mtns,
Mar 4, 2011, 11:54 AM