On a birding trip to the then Audubon Crosswicks Sanctuary in Jenkintown, Pa., I spotted a lush patch of Skunk Cabbage growing in a vernal pool. It is these little known natural places so close to urban and suburban areas that fascinate me.
In wet marshy woodlands and swamps this curious plant peaks up from the wet, moist soil. The Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) sprouts so early in spring that the heat of the plant’s cellular respiration from its rapid growth actually melts the surrounding ice and snow. It is the first native flower to bloom in the Northeast region of North America.
Skunk Cabbage is a low growing plant. The plants roots will contract once it grows into the ground. The contracting pulls the plant deeper into the soil. Over a number of years, a mature plant can be very hard to pull up. So, this is why it is low-growing, the roots pull the plant down instead of the stem growing up.
The large egg-shaped leaves rise not from a stalk but directly from the soil. The leaves unfurl and shade the odd-looking flower beneath it. You can just see the small purplish-brown flower in the photo above.
If the leaves are bruised a foul-smelling odor is emitted. A flowers foul smell usually it attracts insects like flies. The plant smells like skunk, hence the name.
The leaves also contain calcium oxalate crystals which irritate some humans. Herbivores (plant-eating animals) avoid eating Skunk Cabbage. But some animals find the plant tasty. Black bears emerging from winter sleep have been known to eat the early spring leaves.
How the Skunk Cabbage Reproduces
The purplish-brown flower blooms from February to May. The purplish-brown hood is the spathe. The flowers are bisexual.
The pale yellow knobby thing in the flower is the spadix. The spadix is covered with tiny flowers. The creamy yellow flowers are the beginning phase of the male flowers after being in the female stage.
The flowers at the top of the spadix open first and are in the female phase. The level of flowers to open next are in the female phase while the first flowers enter the male phases and shedding pollen. The first level of pollen-shedding flowers may fertilize the second level of flowers.
The Sculptural Flowers
I think the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage are beautiful. I like them as they begin to emerge and unfurl.
How Animals Use Skunk Cabbage
It’s pollinators are flies, stoneflies, and bees.
The Common Yellowthroat Warbler sometimes nest in the central hollows of the large leaves. Sowbugs and millipedes are often seen on the decaying spathes.
Wood ducks, Ruffed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Northern Bobwhites feed on the seeds. The Skunk Cabbage is the first pollen source in spring for honeybees.
Skunk Cabbage Facts
Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
Family: Jack-in-the-Pulpit (or Aroid)
Habitat: Swamps, vernal ponds, low-lying moist grounds in wooded areas and forests
Range: Northeast North America ( Nova Scotia west to Minnesota; south to Tennessee
Blooms: from February to May
Pollinators: various flies and bees
More about spring
Gardening for Pollinators (U.S. Forest Service)