Piu, What’s that Smell? A tribute to skunk cabbage.

Author: Chloe Bland, Plant systematics student 2013

           Scott Milburn, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

           Scott Milburn, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Have you ever thought that there was a plant that could push aside the dark and cold depths of winter?  Well, if you said no, then you are mistaken.  Although quite malodorous when injured, Symplocarpus foetidus (better known as skunk cabbage) is a good indication that spring is right around the corner.  Skunk cabbage has the ability to produce temperatures between 55 degrees F and 95 degrees F that allow it to melt the snow around it and grow out of the frozen ground.  This plant is an early indication that winter will soon be ending. 

Skunk Cabbage is a flowering perennial plant.  The plant is usually the first plant to bloom at the end of winter and in the beginning of the spring.  The plant emerges out of the soil during late February and continues until May.    

Symplocarpus foetidus is found throughout the eastern portion of Canada and in the eastern part of the United States.  It is as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina and as far west as Minnesota.  Eastern Skunk cabbage has also been found in parts of Asia.  However, some botanists believe that the species in Asia is a separate species from the one found in North America.

The plant thrives in habitats that have wet and mucky soils.  Skunk cabbage grows in areas that have lots of shade.  Most of the time, Skunk Cabbage will grow around streams, bogs, thickets, and around wooded areas.  Occasionally, Skunk Cabbage can be found on hillsides but only if the soil around it is continuously wet.  Skunk cabbage can grow in a different range of soil pHs from acidic soil to slightly alkaline soil.  Some commons plants that are frequently found with Symplocarpus foetidus include sedges, jewelweeds, and Marsh Marigold.

Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae family.  Other members of this family include lilies, philodendrons, taros (elephant ears), and other native plants such as Green Dragon and Jack-in-the-pulpit.  Skunk Cabbage is relatively common species.  However, when habitat destruction such as deforestation and/or agriculture alters the environment, skunk cabbage has a hard time recovering.  Because of habitat destruction, skunk cabbage has become an endangered species in states such as Tennessee.   

Skunk Cabbage is characterized by a maroon bract called a spathe.  The spathe allows pollinators such as bees, butterflies, or beetles, to enter and pollinate the flower.  The spathe can have different color patterns such as irregular spots, lines, and splotches, in shades of green, maroon, and purple.  The spathe surrounds the spadix which is knob-like structure on the plant.  The spadix is a spike of many flowerless petals. Normally, the flowers have four sepals, four stamens, and a pistil.  The leaves are arranged in a basal rosette.  The leaves of the plant are rather large with the length ranging from 40-50 cm and the width being 30-40 cm. 

The flowers of skunk cabbage emerge during the early spring.  The plant is capable of producing temperatures between 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  The heat that the plant produces is generated through cyanide-free cellular respiration.  This heat production allows the plants to emerge from the frozen ground.  The heat that is produced also helps spread the odor of their flowers to attract pollinators.  The plant also attracts pollinators by releasing an odor that resembles the smell of a skunk when the plant is broken or injured. The foul odor encourages pollination while providing the pollinators a refuge from the harsh effects of winter.  The principle pollinators of skunk cabbage are flies because they are attracted to the rancid odor.       .  

 Symplocarpus foetidus is considered a poisonous plant. It contains calcium oxylate which can create causing kidney stones.  If the plant is dried or cooked, the calcium oxylate can be destroyed.  Native Americans used to cook the roots of Skunk Cabbage to treat conditions such as headache, earache, bleeding, to skin and mouth sores.

Although the plant produces foul odors, Symplocarpus foetidus is an indicator that spring will be arriving soon because of the plants ability to create temperatures that allow it to emerge from the frozen ground.  Just remember, if you are ever in the woods and need toilet paper, don’t grab the skunk cabbage!

Literature Cited

Hayden, John. 2009 Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). 10 December 2008.

         R.A. Howard, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Springsteen, Joel. Native Plant: Eastern Skunk Cabbage. 22 March 2013.

The New York Botanical Garden. Weekly Wildflower: The First Wildflower of Spring–Or the Last of Winter? 2014.