Skunk Cabbage

Scientific Name: Symplocarpus foetidus

Skunk Cabbage

Description: Skunk cabbage is a flowering perennial plant that is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The flowers appear before the leaves and are characterized by a mottled maroon hood-like bract called a spathe, which surrounds a knob-like structure called a spadix. The spadix is actually a fleshy spike of many, petal-less flowers. As the flowers mature, the spathe opens more to allow pollinators such as flies and carrion beetles to enter and pollinate the flowers.

Predation: Most animals avoid skunk cabbage because it causes a burning sensation when eaten, but bears will eat young plants in the spring. American Indians have used it as a medicinal treatment for coughs and headaches. For a time in the 1800s it was sold as the drug dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.

Habitat: It emerges from late February through May (depending on the region) in woodlands, wetlands, or near streams.

Range: Skunk cabbage can be found throughout eastern Canada and the northeast U.S., west to Minnesota and southeast to Tennessee and North Carolina. A similar plant, the western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is found in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and British Columbia.

Life History and Reproduction: Skunk cabbage has a remarkable ability to produce heat that allows it to emerge and bloom even when the ground is still frozen. During the winter when temperatures are freezing, the flower buds can warm up to 70 degrees, which melts the snow around the plant. Pollinated flower heads develop berry-like fruits containing seeds which germinate into new skunk cabbages next growing season. Skunk cabbage leaves decay rather quickly. The leaves have high water content, so there is less plant matter to dry out and decompose.

Fun Fact: Skunk cabbage gets its name from the unpleasant odor it emits. This scent is a way for the plant to attract pollinators that are attracted to rotting meat. The scent is especially noticeable when the plant is injured. It travels easily because it is carried on the warm air that constantly rises from the spathe.

Conservation Status: Listed as endangered in Tennessee.

Sources:
Ohio Department of Natural Resources 
United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database 
Nature Institute 
Flora of North America 
National Park Service 

 

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