Whenever we go out for a walk in the great outdoors, most of us have a tendency to focus on wildlife. Birds, butterflies, and mammals naturally capture our attention with color and motion. For those willing to investigate, the plant world offers some truly amazing natural history, too.
Take for example, skunk cabbage. As perennials, they are the first plants to emerge and usually do so during February. Ironically, this year the flowers began blooming during early January – perhaps another signal of a warming environment; perhaps not!
The skunk cabbage’s small blossoms grow from a yellowish-green, bulb-like spadix that is enveloped by a light green to brownish, maroon-mottled, hood-like sheath called a spathe, which is also part of the plant’s flower. If the spathe is bruised, it emits an offensive odor, strikingly similar to the essence sprayed by a disturbed skunk. The foul-smelling aroma generated by the flowers attract insect pollinators, primarily flesh flies and carrion beetles.
The plant’s rhizome grows vertically underground, but produces a rosette of large, green leaves that sprout during mid-spring and can reach a height of three feet or more. The broad, cabbage-like leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, which protects the plant from most herbivores and omnivores, although black bears are known to feed on the young foliage. Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae family and related to the Jack-in-the-pulpit.
In order to flower during winter “polecat weed” generates its own heat through a process called thermogenesis or cellular respiration; skunk cabbage simply melts its way through frozen, damp soil. With temperatures reaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the flower is capable of melting several inches of snow surrounding the protective spathe.
Although the roots are toxic, Native Americans ground the leaves to make a potion for treating coughs and other respiratory ailments; the tender sprouts were also popular as a food seasoning. During the 1800s, doctors in the United States regularly prescribed a drug derived from skunk cabbage to patients suffering from respiratory disease and rheumatism. One bite of a fresh, mature leaf, however, will likely burn your mouth and cause swelling of the throat; ingesting several could be fatal.
These bizarre, common plants are native to Eastern North America, from Minnesota eastward to Nova Scotia and latitudinally southward to North Carolina and Tennessee, although the Volunteer State has declared them endangered because of habitat loss. Look for skunk cabbage in wetlands, bogs, floodplains, and woodland seeps.
January and February is a great time to explore the Great Outdoors! And take a child along with you, please!
Mike Roberts, Naturalist and Outreach Educator
Please consider a tax deductible donation to the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation.