This week on our Around the Grounds blog, we explore a beautiful plant with a not so pleasant sounding name. This week’s post is guest authored by Travis Brady, Greenburgh Nature Center Director of Operations and Facilities.

Just because a plant has an unpleasant name, doesn’t mean that it lacks aesthetic appeal or wildlife benefits. Such is the case with native Skunk cabbage.

Skunk cabbage, (Symplocarpus foetidus = clustered fruit that is fetid) gets its name from the unpleasant carrion-like odor it emits. This scent is a way for the plant to attract pollinators that are lured to rotting meat. The scent is especially noticeable when the plant is injured; but don’t let that deter you from experiencing the unique beauty and utility of this native!

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), as it is lovingly known, is one of the very first plants to push up from winter’s frozen ground and is a native flowering perennial.

Often emerging in late February, the maverick skunk cabbage uses thermogenesis, the ability to use stored energy to create its own heat (up to 70 degrees F)  in order to melt through frozen ground and snow. As one of the year’s first flowering plants, skunk cabbage, usually found in old woodlands, wetlands and along streams, is a haven for early season insects. If you stroll down to the vernal pond here at the Nature Center, you can spot skunk cabbage along the wooden bridge and all throughout the wetland area. 

The unique flowers appear before the leaves emerge and are characterized by a mottled maroon hood-like leaf called a spathe. Deep inside the spathe is a knob-like structure called a spadix. The spadix is actually a fleshy spike of many tiny flowers packed together. 

A burning sensation caused by oxalate crystals inside the plant may keep deer and rabbits from foraging on the leaves, but skunk cabbage is known to be sought out by bears just emerging from hibernation. In addition, turkey and geese also eat the young leaves, and the seeds from the fruits are eaten by squirrels, wood ducks and quail. 

After the flowers fade, the leaves take over. Dark green in color, the leaves are quite substantial, reaching a foot and a half wide and almost two feet long. With seeds often dropping adjacent to the parent plant it is most likely that you will see patches of skunk cabbage rather than isolated individuals.

This truly striking, bizarre, and fascinating plant is tolerant of soil ranging from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline and makes an exciting addition to any garden that has the right conditions. By providing early season growth with colorful flowers and attracting a litany of pollinators, skunk cabbage can benefit your garden, and may be just the right plant to help you daydream about warmer spring days ahead. Henry Davis Thoreau sure thought so…

“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year…” “See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.” –Henry David Thoreau

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