Nature Nearby: A smelly harbinger of spring

March 13, 2016

Skunk cabbage needs the wet, muddy environment to survive and grow.


Walk around the Trumbule Trail (the boardwalk through the Magruder Park swamp) and you’ll easily notice one of the earliest spring flowers: skunk cabbage. The mottled, reddish hoods (spathe) help protect this flower cluster in its earliest spring growth. The chemical process involving the calcium oxalate in the plant’s stem helps to raise the plant’s temperature as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient air temperature. This helps the plant get its “head start” on spring growth and even helps to melt snow around the plant. The plant is fairly common in wetlands and is in the same family as Jack in the Pulpit, another unusual looking wetland plant in this area. Skunk cabbage needs the wet muddy environment to survive and grow. The plant’s rhizome will continue to grow deeper in the mud for many years. Some botanists estimate the rhizomes of the plants may be over 100 years old. The plant can continue to survive as long as the soil remains moist. It is believed that the plant evolved in the Cretaceous period (approximately 65 million years ago), so it has survived in its present form longer than some of its original contemporaries, the dinosaurs.

The flower cluster (within the hood) produces a strong, foul odor (not unlike the mammal which gives the plant its first name) which attracts carrion flies and other insects to pollinate the plant early in the season. Interestingly, the smell repels most local mammals and other animals and helps protect the plant from predation. The heat generated by the stem also helps the odor to spread and attract the insect pollinators.  The thermogenic (heat producing) characteristic may also offer the pollinators a short “warm up” as they fly in the still chilled early days of spring. Later in spring, large green leaves (as much as 18 inches long) grow out, giving the plant its last name.  The smell can also be detected when the leaves are torn.

The leaves strongly resemble cabbage leaves and some edible plant advocates suggest ways to prepare them (in multiple changes of boiled water after first drying the leaves for several days), but the calcium oxalate which heats the plant may cause nausea, temporary blindness and other negative effects. Consumption is not recommended. While most animals will not eat the plant, its tiny seeds may be consumed by birds (who may spread the seeds after digesting them).

The plant was used by some Native Americans as food, and in the early 19th century it was used in a medicine known as dracontium (dragon’s tongue) for nervous diseases and some respiratory disorders. While some people still use the plant for some of these medicinal purposes, the toxicity risk is a serious deterrent. It is perhaps most safely enjoyed as an interesting and attractive very early spring flower.