Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus (Linnaeus) Salisbury ex Nuttall    Synonyms: Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Polecat-weed.
Kingdom Plantae   >   Division Tracheophyta   >   Class Magnoliopsida   >   Order Arales   >   Family Araceae   >   Genus Symplocarpus   

Status:

For many East Coast nature-lovers, Skunk Cabbage is a favorite harbinger of spring. It's always surprising how early this perennial herb arrives, often emerging in damp wooded areas even while surrounded by standing snow. Skunk Cabbage can do this because it is part of a small group of plants that literally raise their temperature higher than the surrounding air! The process is called thermogenesis, and it involves mitochondria generating heat as part of cellular respiration. The heat allows the plants to burst forth from still-frozen ground. It assists in the transmission of the plants' namesake fetid aroma, which attracts a suite of early emerging pollinators. The warmth itself then entices visitors to linger and to visit other Skunk Cabbage plants, further increasing the rate of pollination.

Skunk Cabbage is a very ancient plant, possibly existing in near its present form as far back as the Cretaceous Period (between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago). The plants reproduce by seed, not by horizontal rhizomes. In fact, the plant arises from a thick, vertical rhizome, from which grow many roots ringed like earthworms. The roots are contractile, pulling the stem into the soil and thus helping anchor it in its soggy substrate. Individual plants can be very old, some estimated at 200 or more years.

Description:

"The sheathing, shell-like spathe, mottled and varying from green to purplish-brown, envelops the heavy rounded spadix, on which are borne flowers containing both stamens and pistils. The broad leaves, which appear after the flowers, are at first coiled, later become very large and have a foetid odor when crushed"(Peterson and McKenny, 1996). Skunk Cabbage reproduces by reseeding itself rather than clonally through rhizomes.

Where to find:

Common throughout Maryland, in wet soil in woods and in open swamps.

Relationships:

According to Illinois Wildflowers website,"The flowers are pollinated by flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), carrion flies (Calliphoridae), and various gnats. These insects are attracted by the carrion-like appearance of the inflorescence and its unpleasant odor. The attractiveness of the flowers is enhanced by the increased temperature that is maintained within the spathe during the early spring. The caterpillars of Phragmatobia fuliginosa (Ruby Tiger Moth) feed on the foliage of this plant; this moth is polyphagous. Young larvae of Bellura obliqua (Cattail Borer Moth) typically mine the leaves of the plants that they infest, while older larvae bore into the crowns. Slugs and snails occasionally feed on the foliage of Skunk Cabbage. Spiders often lurk within the spathes to feed on insects that visit the flowers.

"The toxic foliage is inedible to most vertebrate herbivores because it contains crystals of calcium oxalate."

However, after they emerge from hibernation in the spring, hungry Black Bears and Snapping Turtles will eat the foliage. Black Bears may consume large quantities, up to 99 percent of their spring diet in years when the availability of acorns, beech nuts and other mast fruits is low (McDonald and Fuller 2005).

"Skunk cabbage is sometimes known as Bearweed, as bears are one of the few animals that eat the buds and leaves. When bears awake after hibernating, they need to become unplugged before they can feast on grasses and grubs. Enter skunk cabbage, nature's Ex-Lax. Bears eat the plant to get things moving again. But don't think about trying it yourself: the juices of its leaves cause serious inflammation in the mouth [and eating large amounts of the foul-smelling plant can be fatal]" (Pique Newsmagazine Staff, 2015).

There are 738 records in the project database.

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Skunk Cabbage blooming in Howard Co., Maryland (3/20/2014). Photo by Richard Orr. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage flowers, one about to open, in Talbot Co., Maryland (2/8/2014). The flowers emerge before the leaves in Skunk Cabbage. Photo by Jared Satchell. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage, spathe open, revealing spadix of flowers, in Montgomery Co., Maryland (3/11/2017). Photo by Bill Hill. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Montgomery Co., Maryland (2/5/2021). (c) Stephen John Davies, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Stephen John Davies via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Montgomery Co., Maryland (2/5/2021). (c) Stephen John Davies, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Stephen John Davies via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Montgomery Co., Maryland (2/5/2021). (c) Stephen John Davies, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Stephen John Davies via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage blooming and leaves are emerging in Howard Co., Maryland (3/23/2016). Photo by Nancy Magnusson. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage (spathe with flowers on the enclosed spadix) in Montgomery Co., Maryland (3/22/2016). Photo by Robert Ferraro. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage flowers of spadix within spathe in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland (2/19/2017). Photo by Matthew Beziat. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage blooming in Montgomery Co., Maryland (3/24/2015). Photo by Elizabeth Miller. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage foliage in Howard Co., Maryland (4/13/2006). Photo by Bill Hubick. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland (4/26/2019). Photo by Matthew Beziat. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Washington Co., Maryland (4/2005). Photo by Bill Hubick. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Talbot Co., Maryland (3/19/2016). Photo by Bill Hubick. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage flowers in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland (3/3/2013). Photo by Bill Hubick. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Kent Co., Maryland (4/11/2014). Photo by Nancy Martin. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage found blooming in Frederick Co., Maryland (4/3/2010). Photo by Jim Brighton. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage, open spathe revealing flowers on spadix, in Montgomery Co., Maryland (2/15/2018). Photo by Robert Ferraro. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage inflorescence in Howard Co., Maryland (2/3/2017). Photo by Bonnie Ott. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage blooming in Colesville, Montgomery County, Maryland (3/3/2012). Photo by Janice Browne. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage, newly emerged flower bud, in Montgomery Co., Maryland (12/13/2015). Photo by Jane Hill. (MBP list)

The fruit of Skunk Cabbage in Baltimore Co., Maryland (9/13/2015). Photo by Jim Brighton. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Carroll Co., Maryland (4/22/2018). Photo by Matthew Beziat. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage, open spathe and unfurling leaf in Montgomery Co., Maryland (3/29/2017). Photo by Robert Ferraro. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in bloom in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland (1/21/2018). (c) pgwamsley, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by pgwamsley via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Baltimore Co., Maryland (4/24/2020). (c) brollfinke, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by brollfinke via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Baltimore Co., Maryland (4/3/2020). (c) Dwight Johnson, all rights reserved. Photo by Dwight Johnson. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in bloom in Howard Co., Maryland (3/1/2020). (c) Peggy Muddles, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Peggy Muddles via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in bloom in Howard Co., Maryland (3/4/2020). (c) Ryan, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Ryan Douglas. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage spadix in Howard Co., Maryland (3/4/2020). (c) Ryan, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Ryan Douglas. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage blooming in Howard Co., Maryland (3/4/2020). (c) Ryan, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Ryan Douglas. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Garrett Co., Maryland (2/19/2020). (c) Randy Bodkins, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Photo by Randy Bodkins via iNaturalist. (MBP list)

Skunk Cabbage in Baltimore Co., Maryland (4/25/2020). (c) Dwight Johnson, all rights reserved. Photo by Dwight Johnson. (MBP list)

Close-up of Skunk Cabbage spadix in Prince George's Co., Maryland. Photo by USGS PWRC. (MBP list)


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