Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage)
(L.) Salisb. ex Nutt.
Genus: Symplocarpus – There are only five species in the Symplocarpus genus, and they all stink! S. foetidus is the only species found in the United States.
Family: Araceae (arum)- Plants in the Araceae family all have a spadix which, according to Wildflowers of New England, is an “unbranched, fleshy spike with flowers partially embedded in it.” Think calla lilies and jack-in-the-pulpit!
Bloom Time: EARLY. Thanks to their internal heaters they will grow right up through snow!
Bloom Color: Red to purple with varying yellow streaks
Plant Height: 1-2 ft
Leaves: The basal leaves emerge after the flower. A smooth, hairless leaf, they can grow 2+ feet in length.
Habitat: Skunk cabbage loves wetlands! You’ll find these along streams, along the edges of wetlands… they like their feet wet, so where there is water, there may be skunk cabbage.
Life Cycle: The red spathe of the flower emerges first. As it rises, it opens slightly and the spadix inside is visible. The tightly curled leaves emerge later in the spring, and can be quite large! Both the leaves and the flower die back by August and remain dormant until spring. A hard black seed pod is the last
Key Facts: Skunk cabbage does indeed stink! “Foetidus” is actually Latin for foul smelling, and it was our English word “fetid” is derived from. Both the flowers and, when crushed, the leaves, give off a rancid odor that attracts the flies and carrion beetles that pollinate them. Also, thanks to thermogenesis, the inside of a skunk cabbage bloom is heated! This allows it to melt the snow around it, pushing up early in the spring and is thought to attract pollinators as well.
You can find Symplocarpus foetidus in all of the New England states and is stable in all of them.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb
Wildflowers of New England, Ted Elliman