Journey with Nature

Skunk Cabbage

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Symplocarpus foetidus, or the eastern skunk cabbage is hard to miss. Its spiky-shaped maroon leaves are mottled with contrasting patches of bright yellow-green that are easy to spot even if there happens to be snow on the ground (which more than likely is the case!). Skunk cabbages begin to make its appearance in the early winter, when most plants still wait for spring. Take a hike in February through a wetland and you are bound to spot a cone-shaped furl of leaves just waiting to bloom and try visiting the following preserves any time of the year to seek out the skunk cabbage either by sight or by smell!

An accidental misstep on a skunk cabbage will make its presence even more obvious as you catch a whiff of a smell that will explain the wildflower's name. Surprisingly, the stench is quite beneficial to the plant's survival. It discourages animals from nipping at its leaves and disturbing the soft, muddy wetland habitat it prefers. The smell (most often described as rotting flesh) also attracts bees and flies that act as its pollinators by moving pollen from males to the waiting stigmata of females. Yet, even without this odor-rific characteristic, the skunk cabbage certainly wouldn't be without intrigue.

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A "Warm-blooded" Plant?

Besides the putrid smell, another distinguishing feature of the skunk cabbage is its ability to emit warmth. When hiking, you may notice how the ice and snow on the ground around the plant has melted. Skunk cabbages are one of the few plants that exhibit thermogenesis, meaning they have the ability to raise their own temperature. Much like a warm-blooded mammal, the wildflower can regulate its temperature well above the outside temperature throughout the day and night. This attribute also allows the skunk cabbage to melt its way above the frozen ground.

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More Intriguing Facts about the Skunk Cabbage
  • An idea of the age of this plant can be found through its leaves. Young plants have few leaves, while very old plants have many. How old could it possibly be? Some researchers believe that the skunk cabbage could live for thousands of years.
  • Skunk cabbages prefer moist, wetland soil. If its habitat becomes too hot and dry in the summer, then the wildflower will most likely die.
  • The eastern skunk cabbage has contractile roots that allow some mobility. As the roots grow down and contract, the plant is pulled into the earth. As it anchors itself deeper, leaves are forced underground meaning if you really want to know how old it is - start digging!
  • The leaves decay in early summer, but unlike other plants that dry up and fall; this plant essentially dissolves into a black, slimy substance that soaks back into the ground. Just another quirk of this unique wetland wildflower.

Learn more about skunk cabbage at Ontario Wildflowers.


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