Thursday, April 8, 2010

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus

I am very excited to bring you another post about an amazing native plant. It has been blooming time for the skunk cabbage for a while now but the rain and the job have held be back from getting out and taking photos. This morning I finally had a chance.

Though the skunk cabbage has a reputation for its pungent smell and is a ubiquitous and perhaps overlooked species around the New England area it is a truly remarkable plant. The buds of the plant, which you can see in the picture below, push their way up usually before any other green appears, ordinarily in late March. This bud is a spathe, a modified leaf, which conceals the spadix, a stalk that holds several small flowers. It is the same structure as the jack-in-the-pulpit, and in fact these plants are part of the same family. The flowers lack petals all together and are never revealed, staying wrapped inside the spathe. It’s a bit like a bud that never actually opens.

The skunk cabbage grows in wet areas, streams, ponds, wet woods, and these buds can often be seen pushing up through ice or snow. How this happens is probably the most amazing feature of the plant. The skunk cabbage actually produces its own heat in much the same way as a warm blooded animal. It only does this at the beginning of its life cycle for about two weeks but can raise the temperature by up to 20 degrees Celsius.

above: the skunk cabbage buds

The roots of the skunk cabbage contain a large supply of starches which are broken down in a biochemical reaction that also consumes oxygen (that’s right, the plant consumes oxygen). These reactions produce the heat that allows the skunk cabbage to be one of the first plants to bloom each spring. Studies have shown that the plant consumes about the same amount of oxygen and produces about the same amount of heat as a mammal of the same size. I think the fact that there are “warm blooded” plants is really a bizarre and fascinating one; even more fascinating that these processes are taking place in plants that are so common in the northeast.

The consumption of oxygen also produces an air current which carries the carrion odor compounds also made by the plant. This twin process spreads the smell of the plant out across its habitat to reach its pollinators: mostly carrion-feeding flies. Scientists have found the same compounds in the skunk cabbage’s family as in actual carrion. These compounds have great names like putrescine and cadavarine.

I managed to find some skunk cabbages still budding this morning so you probably still have time to experience its amazing heat production capacity this year. Go out to a wet area and you should be able to find the plant. If you stick your finger just inside the spathe you will notice that your finger warms noticeably. I really can’t get over how amazing these plants are.



  1. i love love love skunk cabbage!! when i moved to RI i was astounded at how beautiful this plant is and i am still in awe of it~ i never saw this plant growing up in the catskills and this plant made me fall in love with swampy landscapes. i am not turned off by the smell, in fact, i am really drawn to it~ it smells like a vibrant ecosystem to me~

    the flower is what i look forward to the most. the unusual shape and amazing purple colour is just fabulous! the flower reminds me a bit of jack-in-the-pulpits, a plant that grew abundantly on my old property back in the catskills. springtime in RI has always been magical for me for many different reasons, but skunk cabbage is, for me, my top favourite plant of springtime!

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I too am fond of skunk cabbage. I like plants that look almost too tropical to be found in new england - i think skunk cabbage is one of these. I think some swampy areas of RI in particular really look like a lush jungle in the summer, instead of what I imagine a New England forest to look like.