Skunk Cabbage: Spring’s Weird, Smelly Wonder

Wisconsinites are always on the lookout for the arrival of spring. We celebrate each January or February thaw, even though we know it is just a tease. Hearing the “Konk-ka-ree” of the first red-winged blackbird in early March raises our spirits too, but nothing defines the arrival of spring quite like the blooming of the first flower. Home gardeners celebrate with the arrival of crocus blossoms, or maybe snowdrops, but nature lovers see spring’s arrival in a far less showy, if not downright homely bloom. Spring is truly sprung in Wisconsin when you see (or smell?) your first skunk cabbage flower. 

Wildflowers have famously confusing common names, but the skunk cabbage is accurately dubbed. The Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) resembles both a skunk and a cabbage. The large, broad leaves form a cluster reminiscent of a cabbage plant, although it is not related to real cabbages. It is a member of the Arum family a group of plants that includes more tropical plants such as calla lilies and philodendrons, but also local native plants such as Jack-in-the-pulpit and green dragon The leaves and stem release a distinctly skunky odor when crushed, perhaps as an adaptation to prevent large animals from browsing it.

 The flower of the skunk cabbage is no less odoriferous, and it resembles an alien pod from a science fiction story. The white streaked, maroon colored structure we see poking up from the wetland muck in March is actually a hood-like leaf called a spathe. The spathe remains mostly furled, creating a chamber that encloses the ball-like spadix. The yellow spadix is covered in many petal-less flowers that make it look spiky and emits a pungent odor of rotting flesh. All that stink does the important job of attracting its pollinators- flies and carrion beetles!

These pollinators not only get a meal of pollen during the lean early spring, they also get a warm place to hang out. Skunk cabbage is one of a few plants that undergoes thermogenesis, a metabolic process that allows the plant to produce its own heat. The skunk cabbage spathe can actually reach temperatures up to 70⁰F! This process allows the skunk cabbage flower to push its way up early in spring by melting snow and thawing soil. The flower continues to produce heat once emerged, allowing the pungent chemical compounds in its spadix to broadcast to pollinators and rewarding them with a cozy place to rest. Truly remarkable!

Skunk cabbage occurs widely from Canada to North Carolina in moist, rich soil. We find it along Wehr’s wetland trail, in spots where it stays wet but not submerged for long. Take a walk on our boardwalk in March and early April and look for the flower peeking through the snow or mud. Visit in May through July to see the big, cabbage like leaves. Gently rub them and enjoy a skunky whiff! 

Bev Bryant, Interpretive Naturalist, Wehr Nature Center

Looking for more in-depth information about skunk cabbage? I recommend this article from the Wisconsin Master Naturalists.