Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is staring to leafing out in wetland areas so I know that spring is really here. Pretty soon, the ground in swampy areas will go from brown to green almost overnight as the skunk cabbage leaves unfurl.
Skunk cabbage leaves are pretty cool–big & wide, deeply veinated–but it’s the blooms that get most of the attention. It’s the first plant to flower in many areas. Skunk cabbage blooms before it leafs, as early as February even in cold areas. Its dark red spathe covers its spadix like a hood, similar to a jack-in-the-pulpit.
The flowers metabolize very quickly, so fast that they generate heat in the process. The heat can raise the temperature outside the spade by 15 degrees Celcius. What this means is that the skunk cabbage can actually melt snow.
When trampled or bruised skunk cabbage emit a pretty foul odor, which attracts pollinators. It fares best in the mucky soil of decidious shaded wetland forests, swamps, and floodplains. Its also known as polecat weed and should not be confused with Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum). Although they’re cousins–both are members of the Araceae family–skunk cabbage is found from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota and south to North Carolina, while Western skunk cabbage is found from Montana west to British Columbia, north to Alaska, and south to California, and has a soft yellow spadix (see below).
Top photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Second photo courtesy of USDA. Western skunk cabbage photo courtesy of Wikimedia.