Curious Skunk Cabbage Flowers Herald Spring

February 2018

At the end of each winter when warmer temperatures tease the arrival of spring, we start to eagerly anticipate the appearance of our spring ephemerals. The very first wildflower to bloom in the Northeast is the aptly named skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Found in swamps, shallow streams, and areas of low, soggy ground, it truly resembles a large cabbage when fully leafed out, and gives off a distinctly skunky odor when any part of it is crushed.

Skunk cabbage flowers start to poke out of the ground in March around New England (or as early as February further south), and have a highly distinctive, unconventional beauty. Like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, skunk cabbage is an aroid, with a fleshy composite flower, the spadix, surrounded by the pointed red-green hood of its spathe. The spadix has the remarkable ability to produce its own heat, a trait known as floral thermogenesis. It does this via a rapid form of cellular respiration, and generates enough heat to maintain a temperature of 68° F inside its spathe for two or three weeks after it blooms.

The evolutionary origin of this adaptation is not wholly understood— it may help the flower survive short periods of frost. It likely makes the sweetly rotten aroma of the chemicals that the flower produces diffuse better into the surrounding air, helping it attract pollinators. Insects certainly appreciate the heat and shelter that the flower provides. Flies, early-emerging bees, and other invertebrates can be found inside the spathe, taking a moment to warm up and hopefully picking up a bit pollen that might be carried with them to another warm and cozy Symplocarpus flower.

If you are eager to learn more about skunk cabbage and other spring bloomers, Carol Gracie includes a fascinating section on Symplocarpus foetidus in her excellent book, “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History”. Happy reading!