What is that Smell?

Skunk Cabbage: Under-appreciated Denizens of Cold

Skunk cabbage braves the cold to peek its leathery reddish, greenish spathe and fascinating flowers through the muck in late winter.  As a plant lover, I take great delight in spotting these stinky gems because I have been waiting ALL WINTER for flowers and that’s a mighty long time. These are generally the first native plants to say hello to the new year.

I recently spotted some at Choate Sanctuary, Saw Mill River Audubon located in New York. Joining friends and their three children, we embarked on a winter woodpecker hike in hopes of seeing all six species of woodpeckers inhabiting Choate. The children, who were very happy to be outside on a sunny winter day, ran wild with joy climbing trees and scrambling over rocks; burning off three days worth of energy by my best estimates. Needless to say, most of the birds steered clear of our group, so I instead found some plants to share with my friends who now have a new appreciation for skunk cabbage. Who knew?

Skunk Cabbage growing at Choate Sanctuary, Saw Mill River Audubon, NY.

Symplocarpus foetidus or skunk cabbage is common in Virginia often found in mountain bogs. The plant is widely distributed throughout eastern U.S being one of two species in its genus, Symplocarpus. The other species is in northeastern Asia.

A few qualities make this plant unique meaning it has a really neat approach to making a living in this world. First, it can tolerate flowering in the winter because of the flower’s ability to generate its own heat, melting through snow and ice. Huh? Yeah, plant physiology magic. Heat production is also likely related to pollination. Second, skunk cabbage stinks to high heaven to attract just the right pollinators like flies, beetles, or bees; hence, the species name foetidus meaning “that has an ill smell”.

Skunk cabbage growing in a northeast Indiana fen unfurling new leaves. You can see the spadix peeking out of the spathe to the left. The spadix is where all the small flowers are located.

Lastly, large bright green leaves emerge after flowering. Do not be fooled by the word cabbage into thinking this plant is good in your soup and salad lunch.These cabbage like leaves are full of a substance called calcium oxalate which is produced to deter herbivory by buggering up the mouth of the unfortunate soul nibbling its leaves. Hopefully, the skunk cabbages successful defense will keep it alive for another day and said soul will have learned a valuable lesson.

Now layer up and get out for that late-winter hike. It is good for the body, clears the mind, and fills the soul with goodness. Spring ephemerals are beginning to peek from under the leaf litter. You might get lucky and find some in flower already on that warm south aspect slope.



Want to know more? Here are my helpful references:

A Grammatical Dictionary of Botanical Latin (online)

Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont by Timothy P. Spira

Uemura S., et al., 1993. Heat Production and Cross Pollination of the Asian Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus renifolius (Aracea). American Journal of Botany, vol. 80, no. 6, 1993, pp. 635-640., www.jstor.org/stable/2445433 .