by Marisa Baldine
April 01, 2021
Each spring, as skunk cabbage breaks free from the leaf litter and snow on the forest floor, the unique shape, color and emergence technique invites those walking by to study its botanical complexity. From a simple sprout grows endless intrigue—but this seasonal plant is only around for a few short months, taking on two drastically different forms.
An uncommon lifecycle
The skunk cabbage’s extreme transformations are powered by a deep root system, which also causes the plant to be one of the first spring plants to appear. When the skunk cabbage first emerges, it is covered by a smooth, maroon hood called a spathe that is often streaked with yellow and green. Inside of the spathe, what looks like a single flower is actually dozens of tiny flowers hiding in one sprout. These fleshy flowers lack petals and rest on the spadix, hiding under the spathe.
Unlike most plants, skunk cabbage grows the female parts of its flower first, and only develops pollen-holding stamens later, preventing self-pollination. After the flowers have been pollinated, the spathe dies and bright green leaves resembling cabbage emerge and last until summer, when the tree canopy fills in. The spadix then grows into a fruit that ripens and falls apart at the end of summer. This complex series of changes takes place within a few short months of the year.
Unique set of botanical skills
Skunk cabbage is the rare plant that can generate its own heat, by breaking down the starch stored in its roots. Through this process, known as thermogenesis, skunk cabbage can maintain an average temperature inside its spathe that is 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air. In colder parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, skunk cabbage will even melt its way through late-winter snow.
The plant gets its common name from two of its noticeable attributes, the cabbage-like leaves that appear later in the year and the skunk-like smell it produces earlier. This strong smell mimics carrion and attracts pollinating insects like flies, that find the smell irresistible. The heat of the plants helps carry the smell even farther.
The last survival tool in this plant's arsenal is the calcium oxalate hidden in its leaves. This substance is known to cause severe stinging and irritation when touched, which protects the plant from most predation. The only animals that feed on skunk cabbage are snails, slugs, bears and, in extreme situations, snapping turtles.
Standing out from the crowd
You might know more relatives of skunk cabbage than you think. Jack-in-the-pulpit, another distinctive forest native, as well as caladiums and calla lilies in ornamental shade gardens, and the monsteras and philodendron inside many homes are all in the same family. In its own way, the skunk cabbage is just as beautiful as these relatives. So on your next spring walk in the woods, be sure to look for the seasonal plant’s maroon hood or vibrant green leaves before they are long gone by the summer.