Whenever I find myself beaten down by the long, gray days of winter I walk through the woods looking for the first signs of spring. What I seek are the purple tips of Eastern Skunk Cabbage blossoms (Symplocarpus foetidus) melting their way through the frozen ground. This unusual ability is known as “thermogenesis,” literally heat generation. Skunk cabbage is on average 36ºF warmer than the air around it, day or night. To stay this warm the plant consumes as much oxygen as a small mammal! Usually skunk cabbage emerges in late February or March, but in this oddly warm winter they have been persuaded to awaken earlier.
The approach to the Angle Fly Brook footbridge (along the Yellow Trail) is surrounded by large swathes of wetland filled with this native plant. Skunk cabbage thrives in wet areas and can often be spotted growing in streams, entwined among icy ribbons of flowing snow melt.
The tough, green-blotched brownish-purple hood of the skunk cabbage blossom is called a spathe. Within are hidden the flowers themselves, tiny and yellow, arising from the spadix – an egg-shaped structure. Skunk cabbages are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects attracted by its foul, pungent smell. Pollinators may also find the spathe offering a warm refuge from the cold winter air.
Another odd characteristic of skunk cabbage is that its stem actually grows deeper into the earth each year of its life, pulled down by “contractile” or shrinking roots.
By May, the blossom has withered and large cabbage-like leaves unfurl to dominate the damp understory. Skunk cabbage leaves can be one or two feet wide and several feet long. By late summer, the leaves have decayed totally away as if the plant had never been there at all.