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Eastern Skunk Cabbage
Symplocarpus foetidus

I have two memories of this plant. The first, is in West Virginia as a child on a hike/adventure in the woods with my grandfather. We came across a boggy area with lots of greenery on the forest floor. He told me it was Skunk Cabbage – and was teasing me not to get too close or else it will stink! First off, I was not that old. So I’m like, OK, it’s edible like cabbage, but his warning definitely made me wary. I just knew this thing grew in the wild and you might want to be cautious.

The second time I came across it was in Nova Scotia at the tail end of winter. I was hiking and spotted some strange looking red things peeking out of the cold ground, partially covered in snow. I became fascinated with them and spend more time than I want to admit photographing them and trying to capture what I felt like was their gnome-ness. They seemed like little gnomes or gnome hats popping out of the ground. They were so cute! Later looking them up, I found they were THE DREADED STINKY SKUNK CABBAGE, and I had a good laugh.

Now, this is a REALLY COOL PLANT. And it’s hard to describe, so I’m going to quote from both Wikipedia and Wildflowers and Plant Communities:

“Eastern skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground, placing it among a small group of thermogenic plants.” Wikipedia. I mean, WOAH.

“Skunk cabbage gives off a skunk-like odor when any part of the plant is bruised or damaged. The odor is beneficial because herbivores learn to associate the plant’s odor with the sharply pointed crystals of calcium oxalate that irritate their mouths if they plant is chewed on. A strong odor also helps lure potential pollinators to the tiny flowers. One of the first plants to flower in winter, skunk cabbage develops spathes that can emerge through snow. The plant has the rare characteristic of being able to regulate flower temperature by producing its own heat. On cold winter days, air temperatures hover around 40°F, skunk cabbage can generate enough heat to maintain a flower temperature of nearly 70°F. (!!) The elevated temperature of the flowers within the hood-like spathe provides a warm environment that attracts potential pollinators such as flies, beetles, and bees that feed on pollen (the flowers lack nectar). Carrion beetles that normally feed on the thawing corpses of dead animals are sometimes tricked into visiting the fetid flowers and may transfer a few pollen grains onto the stigma of the next flower that fools them. Strong odor, elevated temperatures, and the contrasting colors of the spathe function synergistically to attract insects at a time of year with potential pollinators are scarce.” From Wildflowers and Plant Communities

Alternate Names: Swamp Cabbage, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Meadow Cabbage, Foetid Pothos (?!), Polecat Weed
Size: 1-2' tall
Family: Araceae (Arum Family)
Habitat: Mountain bogs 
Identification: Herbaceous perennial with basal, cabbage-like leaves, 10-20" long and almost as wide, emerging in late spring, well after the flowers. Fleshy, hood-like spathe, brownish purple, usually striped or spotted, encloses a ball-like spadix with numerous tiny flowers. Numerous seeds embedded just below surface of enlarged spongy spadix. From 'Wildflowers and Plant Communities'  Flowers January-March, fruits July-September.
Uses: Skunk cabbage was used extensively as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman by various tribes of Native Americans. Its leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, which is of medium toxicity to humans, but the toxicity is removed if the plant is prepared properly.
All text and photos copyright © 2022 Middle Way Nature Reserve, unless noted.
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