Family: Araceae (Arum Family)
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.
first flower comes much earlier, often in February or Marchand 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.
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.
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.
plant grows relatively low, with the leaves fanning out from the
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.
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.
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 OnesNatural Landscapers,
photos of Skunk Cabbage see the following web sites: