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Skunk Cabbage
(Symplocarpus foetidus)

by Pat Lewis

Drawing of skunk cabbage

Family: Araceae (Arum Family)

The earliest native spring flower is not, as you might expect, one of the delicate ephemerals that suddenly push their way through the dead leaves on the forest floor, accompanied by a background chorus of courting frogs.

The first flower comes much earlier, often in February or March—and there is nothing delicate about it. I am talking about the marvelous purple and green hoods of the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which sometimes melt their way up through the snow. (I am told they secrete their own antifreeze to accomplish this.) Since they are pollinated by flies, their odor is not the sweet perfume that attracts bees and butterflies; instead, these blossoms give off a mild fetid odor.

This wet-area plant is not too fussy about its environment. It roots in soggy soil where the water table remains high, even if not visible, all year. Smaller plants may be transplanted in the spring, or the late-summer berries may be collected and placed in moist soil.

In 1997, while canoeing the Flint River, I saw skunk cabbage growing in profusion down the high bluffs north of Flushing. In the spring, these slopes are threaded with tiny streams making their way down to the river. By the time I saw them, their bloom time was over, and the bizarre green and purple hoods (spathes) had shriveled and were hidden beneath gargantuan chartreuse leaves. I knew what I was looking at, however, since the huge leaves (very broad and about two feet long) of a shiny yellow-green that almost seemed to glow, are about as distinctive as the blossom.

The plant grows relatively low, with the leaves fanning out from the base.

Internationally, skunk cabbage is one of the wonders of the plant world. At a botanical garden in Germany, cultivars of Symplocarpus foetidus are kept under lock and key. Nothing remotely like it grows in Europe, and specimens are frequently stolen.

This plant ranges from Nova Scotia to Ontario and south to North Carolina, Minnesota and Iowa. A similar-appearing, although unrelated species, grows in the northwest. Lysichiton americanus (Lysichitum americanum), whose common name is also skunk cabbage, has similar enormous leaves; however, its spathe is a clear golden yellow.

Symplocarpus foetidus needs both moisture and shade. It is reportedly easy to grow if given the right environment, needing no care, and starting easily from seed (Edible and Medicinal Plants of Michigan, by Thomas A. Naegele, privately published). The seeds grow closely together in a knob-like seed head.

Design Uses: Symplocarpus foetidus could be used as a dramatic specimen plant or as a flamboyant ground cover. A good companion plant is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), which requires similar growing conditions and flowers in late spring.

(I am indebted to Jewel Richardson for finding background material on skunk cabbage, and also for her drawing).

Article reprinted from the Spring 2001 issue of Wild Ideas ,
the Flint Wild Ones Newsletter.
Copyright © 2001 Wild Ones—Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

 

For more information...

...and photos of Skunk Cabbage see the following web sites:

   
 

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