Skunk Cabbage is an erect native perennial forb growing to 2-3 feet in height.
The leaves are all basal and appear after the flowering in the form of a rosette formed from a single leaf bud. Leaves are held erect by a sheathed stalk that is shorter than the leaf blade, which is oblong to ovate in shape, up to one foot long with the base truncate or slightly heart-shaped; the tips pointed to slightly rounded. Margins are entire. The primary veins are a central rib and laterals with much branching. The underside is paler in color. Young leaves are very soft and flexible. By late summer the leaves have withered away.
The inflorescence is a purplish spadix (ovoid knob shaped cluster) contained within a pointed hood-like spathe, which on this plant is mostly purple-brown, mottled with green and is 4 to 6 inches long. The spathe is held at ground level as the stem of the spathe is underground.
Flowers are 4-part, bisexual, tiny, with 4 yellowish to dark red tepals (replacing both sepals and petals). They have 4 stamens with yellow anthers and a single style from a one-celled ovary. After flowering the spathe dies away and the spadix, which forms the developing seeds, is surrounded and hidden by the roundish large basal leaves.
Seed: The fruit that forms is a cluster of berries, bluish black to dark red-brown in color, globose or oblong to ovoid in shape, each bearing a large reddish-brown angled seed. Seeds fall to the ground when ripe and are the source for new plants. They can germinate that fall or the following spring.
Eloise Butler's thoughts on this plant are also given below the photo section.
Habitat: Skunk Cabbage is a plant of bogs and wet stream edges and is one of the very earliest harbingers of spring, (usually around 1st week of April in the Garden area - the earliest date was March 13). This plant is capable of generating a small amount of heat from the oxidation of stored starches, raising the temperature within the spathe by about 36 degrees above the ambient. This speeds up the flowering and helps the flower to attract pollinating insects to complete it’s cycle early in the season and even to melt any remaining snow around the plant. It grows from thick vertical rhizomes that terminate in whorls of fibrous roots, making transplanting difficult. It re-seeds itself and does not spread via the rhizome.
Names: All parts of the plant give off an unpleasant odor when crushed, hence the common names of 'skunk' and 'pole-cat weed'. The 'cabbage' part of the name comes from the leaf bud, containing many curled leaves as in a cabbage plant. The genus name, Symplocarpus, is derived from two Greek words, symplokos, meaning 'connected' and karpos, meaning 'fruit' referring to the fruit cluster of the species. The genus, foetidus, means 'foul smelling'.
The authors of the plant classification are a bit complex. Following the original 1753 classification of Linnaeus (the 'L.') who assigned the name Dracontium foetidum, the description was published by ‘Salisb.’ which refers to Richard Anthony Salisbury, (1761-1829), British botanist who developed an extensive garden and published many taxonomic revisions, but much of his work was plagiarized and discredited, however some of his work has been reinstated as is the case here, but it was incomplete and was later amended in 1817 by ‘W.P.C. Barton’ which refers to William P. C. Barton (1786-1856) American botanist, physician and illustrator, Naval surgeon, author of the codes for the operation of the first naval hospitals, and then professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania where he taught and wrote on Medical Botany.
Comparisons: There are no comparable plants to Skunk Cabbage. In the same plant family however is our wild calla Calla palustris.
Above: The brown spathe is the first part to appear above ground, followed shortly by the young green leaves, which soon cover over the spathe.
Below: The tiny flowers on the spadix have 4 very small tepals obscured when the 4 stamens are enlarged during pollination as shown here.
Below: The leaves form a basal rosette and have a delicate quilt like pattern. The underside has prominent veins and is paler in color and very soft.
Below: The berries have ripened and the outer shells are opening exposing the reddish brown angled seed inside each berry.
Below: Grouping of plants in the wetland at Eloise Butler during Spring fruiting and in early Summer after full leaf-out.
Notes: Eloise Butler's records show that she obtained plants of Skunk Cabbage on June 3, 1907 from a site near the Lake Street Bridge in Minneapolis. In 1910 it was the first species planted in that year of early spring; and more were planted in 1911 from a site in Minnetonka, MN. Martha Crone planted it in 1938. It is listed on Martha Crone's 1951 census of Garden plants. In the Garden the plant grows in the moist soil of the north end of the wetland. It is native to the eastern edge of Minnesota from Lake County south to the Iowa border. Minnesota and Iowa form the western edge of its range which extends to the east coast, down to North Carolina and up into Ontario and Quebec. It is the only species of Symplocarpus found in North America.
Eloise Butler wrote: "The Skunk Cabbage is one of our earliest spring flowers, for it literally thaws through the soil of the icebound marshes. You will have a greater respect for Dame Nature’s ability as a packer if you take apart the leaf bud made up of many leaves tightly rolled one within another and smaller and smaller in the center. The bud expands into a clump of large leaves, from which the name cabbage is derived. The disagreeable odor is attractive to flies, which find a shelter from the cold within its purplish-red, hood-like spathe and pay rent by pollinating the flowers. The spathe - the showy part of the inflorescence - is merely a large leaf en-wrapping numerous minute flowers set on a fleshy axis. It is always well to get at the roots of things. If you dig deep down into the muck you will discover a stout subterranean stem, from which spring many roots ringed like angleworms. These roots have contracted-like muscles, thereby forming the rings and giving the stem a deep, safe anchorage in the earth. This is only one of the many instances of self-burial by a “pull on the stem.” Published in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune, May 14, 1911) (Read)
In 1916 Eloise also had this to say about the plants she had put in as early as 1907: “Skunk Cabbage blossomed for the first time in the Garden swamp. It is not indigenous to the garden, is late in coming to time, and has been a number of years about it.”
Lore and Uses: This plant is not showy but has unusual traits worth talking about. Foul odor from the parts notwithstanding, there were medicinal uses for the plant. The root contains a fixed oil, wax, starch, volatile oil, fat, salts of lime, silica, iron and manganese. A sparse amount of root could produce a cough syrup when boiled, dried and used in a tincture. This extract is somewhat narcotic. At one time it was sought for a contraceptive. A tablespoon of root solution 3 times per day for three weeks would supposedly cause permanent sterility in men and women. It is the root of the plant that generates the recorded heat and raw root was said to be made into a salve by native Americans to relieve pain and swelling from rheumatism. Leaves are not usable internally as they contain calcium oxalate. The plant was listed in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 until 1882.
Food uses were limited to bread-stuffs and potherbs. As a bread-stuff, an average size root when dried for three weeks and then powdered would yield one half cup of flour. Bread made would be palatable with a slight taste of cocoa (similar to Jack-in-the-Pulpit). The leaves could be used as a potherb but only after 2 or 3 de-waterings with a pinch of baking soda added.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"