Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Symplocarpus foetidus

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Native

  • Size

    1 to 3 feet tall

  • Habitat

    Thrives in moist, shady and seasonally wet locations and can be found in forests, woodlands and swamps.

  • Range

    Native to Canada and the eastern United States; found across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

  • Lifespan

    20 years
  • Status

    Stable

Skunk cabbage is an early-blooming plant native to the forests, woodlands and swamps of the eastern United States.

Appearance

The skunk cabbage emerges in early spring. The first thing to appear is the spathe, a single four to six-inch leaf-like structure often maroon in color with green splotches. The spathe covers the spadix, an ovate fruit-like structure. Petalless flowers can be seen on the spadix. Once the plant has been pollinated, the spathe will die and bright green leaves will emerge in a rosette. The leaves can grow to be one foot wide and three feet long. By the time the tree canopy fills in, the green leaves will die back. The plant will remain dormant until the following spring.

Predators

Snails, slugs, bears and snapping turtles will occasionally eat the leaves of the skunk cabbage. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

In early spring, the skunk cabbage produces dozens of tiny flowers. The stigma, the female part of the plant is developed first and once it has been pollinated the stamen, the male part of the plant, will develop. This prevents the plant from pollinating itself and increases genetic diversity. Throughout the spring the spadix will develop seeds. The fruit will mature and fall apart to disperse seeds by the end of summer.

Did You Know?

  • Skunk cabbage plants have enormous root systems that allow the plants to stay dormant for a large part of the year and emerge with explosive growth.
  • The skunk cabbage creates its own heat through a process known as thermogenesis. The temperature within the spathe is often 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperature. This allows the plant to emerge even when there is snow on the ground.
  • Skunk cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate which can cause severe skin irritation. This is why the plant has so few predators and most will only eat it in extreme situations.
  • The skunk cabbage gets its name from the foul smell it produces when it is blooming. The smell helps lure insects to the flowers to increase pollination.

Sources and Additional Information

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Native

  • Size

    1 to 3 feet tall

  • Habitat

    Thrives in moist, shady and seasonally wet locations and can be found in forests, woodlands and swamps.

  • Range

    Native to Canada and the eastern United States; found across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

  • Lifespan

    20 years
  • Status

    Stable