Skunk Cabbage

One of the earliest plants to arise in the spring is now poking its shoot out of the ground: the Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Skunk cabbage is an herbaceous perennial plant that is usually found in wetlands, around spring seeps, river bottoms or wherever there is abundant moisture.

Eastern skunk cabbage is found from Quebec westward to Minnesota and southward to Tennessee. The plant’s common name comes from the foul smell that the plant emits, especially if the leaf is torn.

Skunk cabbage appears in early spring

Although the top of this herbaceous plant dies back every year, skunk cabbage continues to grow below ground so that a single plant can have a massive root system, and large plants can be hundreds of years old. Skunk cabbage is one of the few plants that exhibit thermogenesis, meaning that the plant can produce enough heat through its cell activity to heat up the surrounding environment.

Temperatures around the plant have been measured as high as 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite the fact that the outside temperature is below freezing. This heat generation helps the plant emerge from frozen soil in the late winter/early spring and helps spread the foul smell, which actually attracts flies, bees, and other insects to the plant for pollination.

Skunk cabbage has medicinal value; a tonic was derived from the plant that was used for respiratory ailments and nervous disorders. Some Native American tribes considered this plant to have the power to ward off evil spirits.

Article by Mike Kay, Frederick County Forestry Board

Nature Note for 4/23/22