What Is Skunk Cabbage?

Updated on January 11, 2019
OldRoses profile image

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Source

One of the great joys of my childhood was running into the woods in the springtime to stomp on the skunk cabbage and release that wonderful stinky odor. It never occurred to me to wonder why the plants smelled like skunks.

What is Skunk Cabbage?

Skunk cabbage is a native plant, actually two native plants that grow in marshes, bogs and shallow streams. They are the Eastern Skunk Cabbage and the Western Skunk Cabbage. Both emit an odor that smells a lot like skunk. They belong to the arum family of plants that are characterized by their unique flowers. Instead of the familiar petals, they have spathes, a hoodlike petal that protects the flowers.

The flower, actually a spathe, of the Eastern Skunk Cabbage
The flower, actually a spathe, of the Eastern Skunk Cabbage | Source

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Eastern skunk cabbage grows in the northeast from Nova Scotia south to Tennesee and west to the Mississippi River. The flowers appear in the spring before the foliage. They often come up so early that there is still snow on the ground. Eastern skunk cabbage has adapted to these conditions by developing the ability to heat up its flowers up to 20⁰F warmer than the surrounding air temperature, a process known as thermogenesis. This allows the flowers, actually the spathes, to melt the snow that is covering the ground.

Eastern skunk cabbage spathes heat up to melt the surrounding snow.
Eastern skunk cabbage spathes heat up to melt the surrounding snow. | Source

The spathes are maroon mottled with green. They are quite large, sticking up 4 to 6 inches above the soil. The spathe, or hood, never completely opens. It stays mostly closed, wrapped around the flowers to keep them warm which aids in pollination. The flowers emit the familiar skunky odor to attract pollinators such as carrion flies and beetles which feed on rotting meat. It is also thought that the warmth of the flowers helps to spread the odor farther. The carrion flies and beetles are attracted by the skunky odor and then spend time in the spathe enjoying the warmth. The flowers last about two weeks before dying and exposing the berries which contain the seeds. The berries lay on the soil all season as the seeds within mature. In the fall, the seeds are released and either moved by animals or float downstream. A few germinate in the spring where they lay.

The foliage of the eastern skunk cabbage emerges after the flowers have died.
The foliage of the eastern skunk cabbage emerges after the flowers have died. | Source

The leaves emerge from a large rhizome after the flowers have finished, usually in February. They are bright green and large, 15 to 20 inches tall and 12 to 15 inches wide. If broken or bruised, they release the same skunky odor as the flowers. Animals don’t bother them because they are poisonous, containing calcium oxalate crystals which irritate the mouth and cause gastric distress. The leaves last until May when the surrounding forest trees have leafed out and now shade the forest floor.

The western skunk cabbage has a bright yellow spathe
The western skunk cabbage has a bright yellow spathe | Source

The Western skunk cabbage is native to the Pacific Northwest. Its range is as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as Northern California. Because winters are milder in this region, the spathes do not heat up. The spathe, which is yellow, opens completely, exposing the flowers. The flowers emit the same skunky odor to attract pollinators which feed on rotting carcasses. The leaves, which are the largest of any native plant in the region, grow to 50 inches tall and 30 inches wide. They appear at the same time as the flowers and also smell of skunk.

Western skunk cabbage is also poisonous, containing the same calcium oxalate crystals as its eastern cousin. Despite that, bears in the region eat the leaves when they emerge from hibernation as a laxative. The native peoples also ate the leaves during times of famine. More usually, they used the leaves to line berry baskets or wrap around food that was baked in fires. The leaves were also used medicinally to treat swellings and sores.

The foliage of the western skunk cabbage remains after the flowers have died.
The foliage of the western skunk cabbage remains after the flowers have died. | Source

Skunk Cabbage in the Garden

Western skunk cabbage with its striking yellow spathe was imported to Great Britain early in the 20th century. It was so successful that it escaped its garden homes and naturalized in the marshes and bogs of both Britain and Ireland. It is classified as an invasive species there.

If you wish to grow skunk cabbage in your garden, you will need to have a bog garden. The plants need soil that is saturated with water. They will not grow in ordinary gardens which are too dry for them. You can collect skunk cabbage from its forest home to transplant into your bog garden. It is easiest to transplant young plants. This is because skunk cabbage has contractile roots. This means that as the roots grow down into the soil, they pull the plant down with them. As the plant ages, it grows deeper into the soil. Older, larger plants are nearly impossible to dig up because their root mass is so large and so deep.

How to Grow Skunk Cabbage From Seed

It’s difficult but not impossible to grow skunk cabbage from seed. You will need to look for the seed in the fall when the berries have matured and released the seeds. The flowers and the leaves will be long gone, so you might want to mark where you saw them in the spring. The seeds are difficult to see because they are laying on top of the soil and are practically the same color.

If you are fortunate enough to find seed, bring it home and plant it immediately. It has to be fresh, not dried out to be viable. Just lay it on top of the soil where you want it to grow in your bog garden. It will germinate in the spring.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Caren White

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, dengarden.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://dengarden.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)