Nature Note: Skunk Cabbage is in Bloom

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Skunk cabbage (a.k.a. swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, meadow cabbage or polecat weed) (Symplocarpus foetidus) may be one of the earliest blooming spring flowers in Ohio. Its flowers could be easily overlooked by the causal observer. The blooms are produced right at the soil surface, are purple-brown in color speckled with dark green spots, are 4-6 inches tall, and often partially covered by leaf litter. One also must be in just the right habitat to see them. Skunk cabbage grows in soils of high moisture found in marshes, wet forests and along stream banks. As a result, most people would likely avoid walking into areas where skunk cabbage grows the best for fear of sinking into a muddy quagmire.


Four skunk cabbage blooms packed close together.
Four skunk cabbage blooms packed closely together on the forest floor, Kendrick Woods Metropark, 3-4-2024.
Skunk cabbage blooms in pooled water after a winter rain shower.
Skunk cabbage blooms in pooled water after a winter thaw and rain shower.







Skunk cabbage can begin the flowering process while the ground is frozen and/or covered by snow and may start this process by late January to early February. The reason that it can do this is because it is a thermogenic plant (i.e., it can generate heat via chemical reactions in its tissues). With this ability to generate internal heat, it can melt its way through snow and ice and maintain temperatures 25-60 degrees higher than ambient air temperatures.


The skunk cabbage bloom is produced before any other parts of the plant appear above ground in the late winter/early spring. The bloom is composed of a spathe and a spadix. The spathe is a modified leaf (bract) that wraps around the spadix (multiple flowers borne on a fleshy stem). Similar flower arrangements can be seen on Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum), Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum).


Jack in the Pulpit flower showing the spathe and spadix arrangement
Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower showing its spathe and spadix arrangement.


Skunk cabbage bloom with its spathe cut away to show the spadix inside.
Skunk cabbage bloom with its spathe cut away to show the spadix inside.

Skunk cabbage is called skunk cabbage because of skunk-like odors released by the plant tissues and flowers, especially when they are crushed. The odors probably help the plant attract potential pollinators such as blow flies and bottle flies (carrion loving flies). These flies overwinter as adults and rapidly become active on sunny, warm late winter and early spring days. Thus, they would be available for pollinating the flowers. Other insects such as beetles and ants that move around on the soil surface could also be pollinators of these flowers.


A greenbottle fly resting on a plant leaf.
A greenbottle fly, Lucilia coeruleiviridis, resting on a plant leaf. This is one of several carrion loving flies that could be attracted to skunk cabbage odors. 


Skunk cabbage petioles and leaves emerge late March into early April. The petioles can grow to a height of 2 feet with an ovoid to round leaf blade up to a foot long and nearly as wide. These leaves will remain for 3-4 months lasting into mid-summer. The above ground parts of the skunk cabbage plant have no heavy fibrous cellulose components thus they decompose and disappear quickly before the end of summer. Decomposition is sped along by the moist to wet environment in which the plant usually grows.


New leaves of skunk cabbage that develop after the blooming period.
New leaves of skunk cabbage growing from the massive root system and stem crown found below the soil surface.


Skunk cabbage is a perennial plant that has a massive root system from which the plant is regenerated each year.


Skunk cabbage leaves nearly full grown by early may.
Skunk cabbage leaves nearly full grown by early May.