Neither a skunk
nor a cabbage
- Symplocarpus foetidus
grows in eastern North America
and Lysichitum americanum grows in western North America. Both are native
plants with a distinct and unpleasant odor
Skunk cabbages are a member of the arum family. "Arum" comes from the Arabic word for "fire". The "fire" reference makes sense. Skunk cabbages are an endothermic plant; meaning the plant uses its own stored energy to generate heat, melting its way up through snow, allowing the flower to emerge and attracting pollinators to the warm flowers in late winter to very early spring. They are said to heat up to 15 to 35 degrees C above the surrounding ambient air temperature for up to 2 weeks. There is also another reason the "fire" reference makes sense. The plants contain a compound, calcium oxalate, that burns the skin. Ingesting the plant can cause intense burning pain, swelling and irritation in the mouth area after chewing the roots or leaves and it may be irritating to the skin.
Despite being labeled as a poisonous and stinky plant I found several odd references to skunk cabbage. One had the essence being used for aromatherapy. Others mentioned medicinal and cooking indications for the plant. Another listed skunk cabbage as a popular forage plant for the wild porcupine. Maybe porcupine's mouths are as tough as their quills. I would not recommend any of these uses but share them out of a sense of wonder.
Skunk cabbage is a soft-stemmed plant found inold growth forests of North America. The leaves grow large, 1 to 3 feet long and about half that wide. The leaves grow in tufts and are a bright, shiny, lime green. They are usually found in wet areas, near streams, ponds, and wetlands. The roots of the skunk cabbage pull the stem deeper and deeper into the mud over time. Older plants are very difficult to dig up. They only reproduce sexually. The seeds are dispersed in water or are eaten. The odor of the flower is said to resemble rotting meat, hence the attraction to flies (which are the primary pollinator of this plant). When in bloom, the "books" say one can usually smell the skunk cabbage before seeing it. Depending on the variety, skunk cabbage has yellow, white or maroon 'blooms' surrounding the central calyx.
Despite what the "books" say, I've stuck my nose in a skunk cabbage flower (March of 2003) and it wasn't that stinky. This was the maroon variety (maybe others are worse). I love seeing the bright green leaves in the early, early spring. A volunteer at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center told me the crushed leaves really stink worse than the flower does.
I was unable to determine if the pollinating flies gain anything from the experience or are just "tricked" into service, smelling rotting meat and getting stinky plant instead. No place to raise maggots there!
And speaking of tricks....a bit of "lore":
Native American stories frequently contain references to Raven, "the Trickster". One story I found has Raven tricking Bear into eating hot stones wrapped in skunk cabbage leaves while Raven steals away the prize of Bear's Salmon. Poor Bear ... hot stones and irritating calcium oxalate all in one gulp!
Well!, here is an interesting tidbit I stumbled across while searching for web photos of skunk cabbage to show my niece. "It's also a favorite food
s in the early spring - after a long winter, bears are severely constipated
. The skunk cabbage works as an excellent laxative
for the bears."
(this author is lyrical)
(this reference added 11/05 and the site is one of my new favorites)
(This reference added 3/16/11. What a wonderful resource The Nature Institute is.)