February 2020: The Skunk Cabbage

Skunk cabbage flowers in snow.

The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one of the earliest flowering plants in the year. The fleshy spike of petal-free flowers is hooded by a leaf known as the spathe. Amazingly, this flower can create heat – up to 70 degrees F, which melts any surrounding snow. As the flowers mature, the carrion-like scent they emit attracts pollinators such as flies and carrion beetles. The heat production of the plant also draws these pollinators in and encourages them to stay for a little while, ensuring they get covered in pollen while in residence.

The bitter taste of skunk cabbage tends to deter most animals from feeding on the plant, though hungry bears in early springtime have been known to eat it. What’s more, when the leaves are broken, the odor is similar to that of a skunk – not at all appealing to most animals. Boiling the leaves can rid it of the smell, but the resultant mush is not appetizing for most people. The seeds aren’t palatable either, so they aren’t carried away and instead fall at the base of the mother plant. This is how the colonies form.

You can find these plants in shaded wetlands. A single plant can live for twenty years, though it will lose its leaves every year. While it can boast an early emergence, the plant goes back to the ground by August. But if you need a little sign of spring in these long winter days, your best chance is a little bit of soggy lowland or wooded body of water where you can see these remarkable plants in bloom.