The hunt has ended. After spending a couple of weeks in pursuit of Skunk Cabbage, we had found it!
Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is a fascinating plant on many levels. The fact that it is the earliest blooming wildflower of the year in much of Eastern North America is what brought it to my attention.
It is a member of the Arum family which is mostly comprised of tropical plants, including Calla Lilies, Philodendron, and Elephant Ears. If one is familiar with the flowers of these other family members, one can see the similarities. Another member of the family from temperate regions, such as ours, is the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which is pictured from Dinsmore Woods Nature Preserve in the photo below. Like Skunk Cabbage, the flowering structure is wrapped in a “cup”.
The Skunk Cabbage flower emerges in late winter before the leaves do. First to appear is the maroon, to maroon with yellow spathe, which is a modified leaf. At first it is tightly closed, not exposing the spadix, the part of the plant that hosts the petal-less flowers.
Then the spathe will start to open, developing a cup like shape, as seen below.
Eventually the opening fully exposes the spadix, a rounded structure that holds the many small petal-less flowers.
What struck me when I saw the spadices was that they resemble the artist rendering of the Covid virus. They range in color from yellow in younger plants, to deep purple in older plants.
Through its cellular respiration Skunk Cabbage actually generates heat, melting snow and thawing the soil around it, allowing it to emerge. This process is rare in plants and is termed “thermogenesis”. It is reported that it can generate temperatures of 55-95 degrees Fahrenheit. Blooming in late winter, or early spring in colder climates, the melting of the snow allows the flower to be exposed for pollination even when much of its range is still a winter landscape.
In some of these photos you can see that the leaves are starting to emerge, but they will remain a tightly bound coil until late April. The outer leaves of the coil also have tinges of the maroon coloration.
When the leaves emerge they are large at 15 to 22 inches long and 12-16 inches wide, and resemble those of some its tropical cousins, especially Elephant Ears, except the leaf stem is not as long. They arise at the base of a center stem like cabbage, and hence the common name. They contain calcium oxalate which makes them toxic to humans and many animals, and only a few organisms have been noted to feed on them, including bears early in the season, snapping turtles, snails, and a couple species of moth larvae.
The plant arises off a large root that is one foot long and 3 inches wide, which gives rise to a mass of fibrous side roots that make it virtually impossible to dig from the ground. The root has a contractile ability that pulls the plant deeper and deeper into the soil as it ages.
The Latin species name, foetidus, means foul smelling and that is another characteristic of the plant. Its flower releases a scent that has been described as “rotting meat” which attracts insects such as Gnats, Carrion Beetles, Carrion Flies, and Flesh Flies; all of which are attracted to the smell of decaying proteins. When the insects visit they pollinate the plant. It is felt that the heat production also helps the flower emit the odor into the surrounding area. On the day that we observed Skunk Cabbage we did not pick up on the scent. That may have been multi-factorial as the flowers were just starting to open and there were consistent winds. Reportedly the scent from the flowers gets stronger later in the season . The leaves and berries will also smell bad if damaged.
The range for skunk cabbage includes Eastern Canada, the upper Midwest, the mid-Atlantic coast, and the Northeastern United States. It occurs in isolated locations in Tennessee but, interestingly, not in Kentucky.
It is an inhabitant of wetland peat laden bogs and fens, but can grow on hillsides in very moist woods. This photo shows it rising through a peat bed.
An interesting relationship exists between Skunk Cabbage and some spiders. The spiders will take advantage of the warmth of the plant and reside within the cup of the spathe, building a web at the opening to capture insects that come to pollinate it.
Finally, a photo representing the spunk of this little plant, as it pushes up through a boardwalk.
Mission completed! After seeing Eastern Skunk Cabbage in person I have a much better understanding of its ecology and the habitat in which it resides. Studying nature is always an exercise in life long learning and I look forward to our next pursuit.
These photos were taken at Gallagher Fen Nature Preserve in Springfield, Ohio. Skunk Cabbage is also common at Cedar Bog Nature Preserve in Urbana, Ohio.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.