A (Stinky) Sign of Spring


Spring is nearly here and with it comes an array of wildflowers so sweet that our winter blues melt away.

We look forward to a rainbow of hues bursting from the ground, a magical show that the woods are waking up.

In the damp, chilly depths of early spring, when much of the landscape remains veiled in browns and grays, there is one woodland wildflower that is already making its annual debut with striking colors woven into an upward spiral. It may lack a certain delicateness. Searching for it will lead to muddy shoes. And, it does smell like death. Amidst the thawing earth and the faint whispers of warmer days to come, emerges the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a plant that defies the harsh conditions and captivates with its unique characteristics.

There is a reason why Skunk Cabbage is generally the first to poke its head out of the soil–it can bloom when there is still ice and snow on the ground. This plant is one of few that can generate its own heat in a process called thermogenesis. On average, it can be 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer inside the bud than the surrounding air temperature. This remarkable feat is achieved through metabolic processes within specialized tissues, enabling the plant to melt through frozen ground and emerge weeks before other vegetation.

Skunk Cabbage is native to wetlands and marshy areas. Peeking out of the ground, you will first see a hood with a narrow opening on the side that tapers to a point. This outer part of the flower is called the spathe. It may be solid deep maroon or streaked with yellow or green. The spathe never opens completely, protecting the many small flowers on the plant part inside of the hood.

If the flowers are never fully open to the air, how can Skunk Cabbage pollinate? It reeks. As the name suggests, this plant emits a skunk-like odor that we may find repulsive. But, the putrid smell lures carrion-eating pollinators like flies, gnats, and beetles. These pollinators are attracted to the scent of rotting meat. The plant’s smell travels easily because it is carried on the warm air that rises from inside the hood.

Later in the year, Skunk Cabbage has broad, layered leaves that look like cabbage. This plant loses its leaves annually but can live up to 20 years.

For what starts as a small hooded flower, Skunk Cabbage has a massive root system. A few inches below the surface, thick roots grow in all directions. These are contractile roots, which means they pull the plant vertically deeper into the soil each year. The fibrous roots store the nutrients needed for thermogenesis.

Beyond its malodorous reputation, Skunk Cabbage plays a crucial role in its ecosystem. As one of the first plants to emerge in spring, it provides vital resources for pollinators and serves as a source of food for various wildlife species. Its large leaves offer shelter for amphibians and insects, while its decaying foliage contributes nutrients to the soil, enriching wetland ecosystems.

Skunk Cabbage may look like something out of science fiction–not your first thought when imagining woodland wildflowers. However, should you start your spring wanderings in the wet forests that blanket east central Indiana, look (or smell) for the bizarre, yet beautiful, buds.

Photo: Skunk Cabbage by Kyle Johnson

Kelley V. Phillips is the Assistant Director for Red-tail Land Conservancy. She strives to cultivate wonder in nature and action to protect it.


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