March 21, 2013

Skunk Cabbage - Symplocarpus foetidus

To celebrate the first days of spring I thought it would be good to highlight one of the earliest spring bloomers, skunk cabbage! Here are 10 fun facts about this unique, native species:

1 Eastern skunk cabbage belongs to Araceae, the same plant family as calla lilies, flamingo flowers, and titan arums!

2 Where might you find this odd little plant? If you live in Illinois, it’s mostly distributed in the northeastern corner of the state, but can be found in some central-Illinois counties. Generally it grows in wet areas like swamps, seeps, deciduous woodlands, wet thickets, fens, and bogs.

3 To many, skunk cabbage resembles a little garden gnome! In technical terms, its "hood" is called a spathe, while the internal flower cluster is called a spadix.

4 Skunk cabbage flowers are perfect (have male and female parts,) but lack petals. They do, however, have flesh colored sepals. Each flower goes through a female phase where you can see its stigma, followed by a male phase where the bright yellow pollen is apparent.

5 True to its name, skunk cabbage does smell! Its flowers give off an odor like rotten meat to trick its main pollinators, flies, into visiting. However, other pollinators like bees can also be seen visiting skunk cabbage flowers and gathering their pollen. Watch this video to see skunk cabbage pollination in action!

6 In addition to its rotten scent, skunk cabbage attracts pollinators due to its warmth (its flower heads generate heat during respiration as they use oxygen to break down starch.) In some cases, the air inside the spathe can be up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding air temperature!

7 This neat plant blooms in late winter or early spring when there is often still snow on the ground. Due to the heat its flowers produce, skunk cabbage is actually able to melt the snow immediately around itself!

8 Each successfully pollinated flower in a skunk cabbage spadix produces a berry fruit. The berries are clustered very close together, hence the plant’s genus name, Symplocarpus, which comes from the Greek symploke meaning “a connection” and karpos meaning “fruit.” Don’t ever eat skunk cabbage berries though; they’re poisonous!

9 After blooming is complete, the leaves of skunk cabbage unroll and grow, often reaching heights of over 20 inches. The leaves are seldom eaten by herbivores because they contain calcium oxalate crystals; these crystals can cause death or permanent kidney and liver damage if eaten! However, some brave, very hungry herbivores like snapping turtles and black bears may eat the leaves after hibernating.

10 Want to get skunk cabbage seeds to germinate? Then make sure to keep them wet! Also, be sure to plant skunk cabbage in a partly sunny location where the soil is mucky and constantly wet! 

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