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Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage is one of the first plants to bloom in spring time along the east coast of the United States and certainly one of my favorites. I love how their bright green color contrasts with the brown leaves of the forest floor and still barren trees.

Skunk Cabbage favors marshy wetland areas and forested stream beds and is known for its pungent smell if you break or tear a leaf. This is thought to deter predators, but also attracts pollinators such as bees, beetles and flies.

But the coolest thing about Skunk Cabbage is that it generates its own heat like a mini bio-reactor, reaching temperatures that are 60-95 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding air temperature! Unlike other plants that convert sunlight into energy using photosynthesis, Skunk Cabbage generates heat through cellular respiration (like people), enabling it to break through frozen ground in early spring to flower well before other plants. Their heat also servers to keep the pollinators warm, so they spend less energy and stay on the plant longer, increasing the chance of fertilization.

So next time you’re walking along the Appalachian Trail and you see Skunk Cabbage, think about what an incredible plant it is.

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9 comments

  1. Haven’t heard “skunk cabbage” mentioned in 30+ years. It used to grow all over near our house. Now I am out in the southwest and it is not here. Thanks for the memories!!

  2. Thanks … I was well aware of the plant, but not of its built-in thermo reactor. Neat! :)

    • I have a friend who is a very talented Botantist. When I told him I was going to be writing about this plant he started gushing about how unusual it’s metabolism is. I see it in the woods up here all the time. It really is very special.

  3. Thanks to tromping around marshes as a kid, this plant has given me a weird like for the smell of skunks. Along with BRTWalker, thanks for the memories and the interesting info!

  4. I always thought that smell was my feet…

  5. Now, for a little skunku…

    Bursting green through snow
    Warming bees and other bugs
    Skunk awakening

  6. I’ve forgotten about that harbinger of spring back home.

    It is supposed to be edible, with many changes of water to remove the calcium oxalate. Ha!
    It doesn’t taste bad, but no matter how I tried (and there are several recipes from otherwise authoritative sources), there would be the stinging tingle that proved the oxalate was still there.

  7. That’s really interesting. Signs of spring here in the Rockies as well, but no Skunk Cabbage sightings yet…

  8. It’s actually the weird inflorescence that precedes the green leaves that is toasty. Flies are among the pollinators and they like to go warm up their wings inside while enjoying that stinky aroma. You will see the purple magenta stripey spathes with rings of melted snow around them as early as February. If you look inside you can see the spadix covered with tiny flowers.

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