Skunk Cabbage: A Pleasant Putrescence


I confess I don’t always follow my own advice. “Scratch and sniff” is a standing rule when exploring new plant discoveries (not recommended so much for animal discoveries.)

And particularly when the known name of the plant suggests an olfactory feature, to have lived this many years knowing Skunk Cabbage and only this year to have scratched and sniffed–why, I don’t know what has become of me. Please don’t tell my children. I am so ashamed.

Yes, they stink. The species name “foetidus” is well-deserved. But early in the season of green, even this off-smell is a welcome change from the monochrome aromasphere of winter.

Here is a stinky plant whose “flowers” are at mud level and not at all showy (though there are some western skunk cabbages called “swamp lanterns” for their flashing yellow “peace lily” looking flower parts) . For pollinators, think: flies hunting carrion. More, here.

Look at some of the forms of this plants early leaves and flowers–the latter very like a close relative: Jack in the Pulpit, also in the Arum family (Araceae).

This plant grows abundantly, adjacent to the EcoVillage where we took a short (and largely flower-free) hike on Saturday. It is in an area identified on their campus map as “wetlands” and this plant is a wetlands indicator. But with the road building and other changes there, I predict the skunk cabbage will disappear in a few years as drainage has taken most of the previous moisture and channeled it elsewhere .

Probably the most unique feature of this plant is its ability to create heat–a process called thermogenesis. And here’s another thing I’ve never done: to stick a finger into the hooded flower in February. Expect temperatures that may be more than 30 degrees F warmer than the air–such that this plant can melt its way through frozen ground to flower before anything else.

The extra heat also helps get the smelly message out to early pollinators.

CLICK the image or this link for a Skunk Cabbage glamour shot. They make a great photographic study in light.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Smelly as they are, Fred, I like the stinky cabbages – they are out and about early in the season here, and they mean springtime to me!

  2. About 1963 or so my friend Mike and I, sitting alongside an array of skunk cabbage, decided we ought to try it. After all (we convinced ourselves) hadn’t Native Americans eaten it to their hearts’ content? We each grabbed a leaf and took a bite. Instantly the feeling of a thousand needles on our tongues and in our mouths due – I know now- to calcium oxylate. Searching some sites recently one naturalist and wild scavanger said simply “No matter what anyone says, skunk cabbage is inedible.” Don’t have to tell me twice.