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Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

By the National Wildlife Federation
Photographs courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation

The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a flowering perennial plant and is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The flowers appear before the leaves and are characterized by a mottled maroon hoodlike leaf called a spathe, which surrounds a knob-like structure called a spadix. The spadix is actually a fleshy spike of many petal-less flowers. As the flowers mature, the spathe opens more to allow pollinators such as flies and carrion beetles to enter and pollinate the flowers.

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Range

Skunk cabbages can be found throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, west to Minnesota and southeast to Tennessee and North Carolina. A similar plant, the western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is found in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and British Columbia.

The skunk cabbage emerges from late February through May (depending on the region) in woodlands, wetlands, or near streams. Most animals avoid skunk cabbage because it causes a burning sensation when eaten, but bears will eat young plants in the spring. Native Americans have used it as a medicinal treatment for coughs and headaches. For a time in the 1800s, it was sold as a drug called dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.

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Life History

Skunk cabbage has a remarkable ability to produce heat that allows it to emerge and bloom even when the ground is still frozen. During the winter when temperatures are freezing, the flower buds can warm up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which melts the snow around the plant. Pollinated flower heads develop berrylike fruits containing seeds, which germinate into new skunk cabbages the next growing season. Skunk cabbage leaves decay rather quickly. The leaves have high water content, so there is less plant matter to dry out and decompose. A skunk cabbage loses its leaves annually, but the plant itself can live up to 20 years.

Conservation

The skunk cabbage is listed as endangered in Tennessee. The destruction of lowland habitats is considered a threat to this species.

For more information, visit nwf.org.


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