Thursday, January 22, 2015

Skunk Cabbage: First Flower of the Year...

Skunk Cabbage about to bloom

     Today I noticed the first flower of the year about to bloom. Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is already poking above the ground and is about to bloom in our wetlands and bogs. It is usually the first plant to flower every year. It's scientific name is very fitting, translating to "fetid or stinking compound fruit." They do indeed smell and the fruit that results if pollinated is a compound fruit. But this plant goes by a wide variety of common names however: Skunk Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage, Skunkweed, Meadow Cabbage, Fetid Hellebore, Parson-in-the-Pillory, Polecat Weed, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Midas Ears, and Polkweed for example.

Skunk Cabbage has very large leaves.

     The odor (as well as dead-meat color) helps to attract its main pollinators of carrion beetles, carrion flies, and thrips. But probably just as important an attractant to ectothermic (cold-blooded) insects is the plant's ability to heat itself and the surrounding area through a process sometimes referred to as thermogenesis. This is very attractive and valuable to insects seeking warm refuge from the winter cold as well as food. The plant can actually generate a temperature 36+ degrees Fahrenheit above its surroundings. An emerging "spathe" housing the tiny flowers within can maintain a temperature in excess of 70 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 2 weeks. It can actually melt the snow and ice around it. It may take 5-7 years for an individual plant to bloom, but a plant can live in excess of 200 years, and some claim up to 1000 years. 

Skunk Cabbage spathe melting the snow around it

     Slugs will also rob the flower of its yellow pollen and even eat its leaves. Few other things though are willing to eat the leaves which, as is typical with plants in the Arum family, are protected by calcium oxalate crystals which are capable of chemically burning most potential herbivores (though bears supposedly like them). 

     Here's a short video of Skunk Cabbage:

     Despite its odorous properties and chemical defenses, many Native American Indian tribes used this plant in a variety of ways. Since drying the plant renders the calcium oxalate harmless, it was used as food by some. But its real usefulness for them was as a medicine. 
     The Iroquois used it as a de-wormer, to combat rheumatism and TB, to treat dog bites and other wounds, and even as underarm deodorant. The Menomini used it to treat cramps, convulsions, wounds, heart issues, hemorrhage, and in tattoos to ward of diseases. The Nanticoke, Chippewa, and Delaware used it for coughs. The Delaware also thought Skunk Cabbage could be made into a poultice against pain and as a tea for epilepsy. Many other tribes had similar uses. 

A mostly Skunk Cabbage patch in a seepage swamp in early May in Linden, Virginia

     The leaves of this plant are quite large, up to several feet long and wide, in order to capture what little sunlight penetrates the tree cover. These provide shelter to many creatures. Some claim that Common Yellowthroats (a type of bird) for example will nest in it or under the leaves not just for cover, but because the smell of the plant helps mask the bird and its nest.
     This plant is very difficult to transplant once established, its roots evolving to growing after being buried in the muck, so it can have an extensive and very deep root system. Since it also does not reliably produce seed, you rarely see it in cultivated situations. So if you're tired of winter and seek the hope of spring flowers, check out your local wetlands and swamps for the first flower to bloom, now that you know a bit more about it.

Skunk Cabbage tends to grow in swamps and other shaded wetland conditions.


  1. What a weird plant, and one I've always loved! It brings back memories of upstate NY, when I would look desperately for any sign of spring in January and February!

  2. Anything that reminds us spring is on the way. On the Capital Naturalist Facebook Group, I posted a short mating chase video the squirrels were having today. Spring is in the air, even if it doesn't seem like ti!