This is the time of year when we get to witness one of the true gems of native plant dynamics. Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is found in wet woodlands, shaded streambanks, springs and on the edges of fens. It is the first flower to begin growing in late winter, creates a horrible odor and has great medicinal value. However, Skunk Cabbage is best known for its thermogenetic properties – it produces its own heat!
Beginning as early as late February Skunk Cabbage begins to appear, sometimes coming up through the snow and melting it in the process. It produces a foul odor (hence the common name) as it grows, attracting stoneflies and bees. These insects serve as its pollinators and are responsible for its reproduction. Breaking a portion of the leaf will give someone a deep whiff of the skunk-like smell. This odor also discourages herbivores from eating it, thus increasing its survival rate.
Skunk Cabbage can create temperatures up to 35° C (95° Fahrenheit) by a process known as cyanide resistant cellular respiration. It is among a small group of plants that exhibit thermogenesis. This produced heat also helps spread its odor into the air. Simply put, Skunk Cabbage is warm blooded, like us.
Another rare trait – Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots. This pulls the plant down into the mud as it grows. The plant actually grows downward, although it attains a height of up to 18 inches. This makes the plant impossible to be dug from the ground, something the nursery trade learned long ago.
Skunk Cabbage is not rare but also not common. It can be found in most Northern Illinois counties but occurrence is sporadic elsewhere. In Wisconsin it is found in most counties of the state. The specific habitat that it prefers makes it hard to find. Large populations of this plant can turn into tourist areas this time of year. It is well documented that Chicagoland once had extremely high populations of Skunk Cabbage.
I used to have a large population behind my house in Bull Valley near Woodstock, ILL. A friend once thought that a deer had broken up a salt lick and spread it around the woodland, melting the snow… If you have never experienced this phenomena it should be put on your ‘to do’ list.