By Kathy Salisbury
Director, Ambler Arboretum of Temple University
If you happen to take a walk into damp shaded woods, perhaps next to a creek or stream or along a boardwalk, you may encounter Skunk Cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus). The skunk cabbage are nearly past flowering by this point, but you may still see remnants of their pointy mottled maroon flowers right at the ground level. Rising up in shiny spring green newness are the large bold leaves of this native perennial. In my opinion there is not a plant more fascinating than the skunk cabbage. Here's why:
They are thermogenic. This means it makes its own heat, like we do! Well, sort of like we do. This plant uses the process of respiration to create heat. This is why you sometimes see the snow melting around the flowers in winter. The flower temperature may exceed the air temperature by up to 77 degrees! Yes! 77 degrees — those flowers are like little saunas for any insects brave enough to face the winter weather. The warmth also volatilizes the pungent oils calling on any pollinators — flies and even a honeybee out exploring on a warm winter day — to come and visit.
They are smelly, which is why it is called skunk cabbage! The odor is emitted when the flowers warm up or when the leaves are crushed. Flies and other insects find the scent alluring and venture inside the warm flower and end up pollinating the plant while warming up.
They are bear food! In areas or times where acorns are rare, hibernating bears will emerge and eat skunk cabbage leaves almost exclusively.
They dig in. Skunk cabbages want to stay where they are. Featuring contractile roots, the skunk cabbages become deeply anchored in place by roots that alternate growing and contracting, pulling the plants into the mucky soils they prefer.
They are a habitat. Not only do these plants provide warm spots and early pollen for pollinators, as the large leaves mature they provide shelter for woodland animals. A variety of songbirds, the yellowthroat warbler for example, have been documented using the hollow of the flower as a nesting location.
If you can find time and space to get out and explore a damp shaded area soon, you may still find these along your way. The leaves can get up to three feet long and are bright green and hard to miss, so even if you are not able to see the strange flowers, you can still marvel at this botanical curiosity.
Gracie, C. (2020). Spring Wildflowers Of The Northeast: a natural history. S.l.: Princeton University Press
Sanders, J. (2014). Secrets of wildflowers: a delightful feast of little-known facts, folklore, and history. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press