Skunk Cabbage

I wrote a bit about Skunk Cabbage last spring.  It’s such an interesting plant…  It generates heat in very early spring and actually melts its way through the ice and snow so it can be the first wildflower of the season.

Let Me Out of Here

UPDATE:  “How does it do that?” asked a reader.  So I googled and found this:

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to see spathes growing up through a thin layer of ice, the ice melted around the spathe in a circular form. This is an indication of skunk cabbage’s remarkable capacity to produce heat when flowering. If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe and when you touch the flower head, your finger tip warms up noticeably. Biologist Roger Knutson found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 20° C (36° F) above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night. During this time they regulate their warmth, as a warm-blooded animal might!

Physiologically the warmth is created by the flower heads breaking down substances while using a good deal of oxygen. The rootstock and roots store large amounts of starch and are the likely source of nutrients for this break down. The more warmth produced, the more substances and oxygen consumed. Knutson found that the amount of oxygen consumed is similar to that of a small mammal of comparable size.  (source)

Seriously… If you are interested in Skunk Cabbage, click on the word “source” above.  You will read more about Skunk Cabbage than you thought was possible to write… and it’s all pretty fascinating!

The flower is odd, resembling raw or rotting meat in color and smell, attracting the only pollinator out at this time of year:  flies.  Later in summer, it will have leaves bigger than your head!

Skunk Cabbage Green

Those leaves will have a distinctly skunky smell which leads me to question why anyone decided to try to eat them…  Except that they are quite plentiful in wetland settings and if you were looking for an easy crop, this would provide…  Or maybe someone saw turkeys munching on the stuff:

Turkeys Eat Skunk Cabbage


At any rate, here’s what the Peterson Guide To Edible Wild Plants has to say about Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus):

The thoroughly dried young leaves are quite good reconstituted in soups and stews.  The thoroughly dried rootstocks can be made into a pleasant cocoalike flour.

Warning: Contains calcium oxalate crystals; eating the raw plant causes an intense burning sensation in the mouth.  Boiling does not remove this property – only thorough drying.  Also, do not confuse the young shoots with those of False Hellabore.

Cocoalike… Hmm… Makes me want to try that!  FYI:  False Hellabore is poisonous.  Personally, I don’t think they look anything alike:

False Hellabore

Skunk Cabbage Range Map


Skunk Cabbage is found in the northeast.  Here is the range map from the USDA website.

28 thoughts on “Skunk Cabbage

  1. Jennifer- Very beautiful pictures, the intense green and sun in these images has really brightened my gray morning. And certainly, I had NO idea that Skunk Cabbage was edible when dried. Fascinating stuff!


  2. Ever since I learned that SC generates enough heat to melt snow, as your picture so nicely shows, I have wondered how does it do it –what is the source of the heat ?

  3. Hi Jenn,
    I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen skunk cabbage, but now that I’ve seen your pictures and story, it’s something I’m going to watch for on my turkey scouting trips. And because I’m curious, I might even kneel down to sniff and see how truly stinky it is!

  4. cestoady asked how the plant generates the heat, so I updated the post and added a link to the source. Very interesting!

  5. Thanks for the followup on my querie. Fasinating stuff.
    A wonderful example of a characteristic with obvious survival value , one that favors very early pollination.

    I wonder if any of the references use the word “metabolism” in describing the generation of heat. Even though it may smell like a skunk,a plant that can turn up the heat certainly has my respect.

  6. What an excellent post! I appreciate reading this very much. I also appreciate the range map which explains why I am not familiar with the plant!

  7. This was quite interesting! We used to have a swampy woods near us where many skunk cabbage grew, but I had no idea about any of this! Thanks for all the info!

  8. I live in the bottom of a valley with a stream. Behind my yard is a wildlife preserve and acres of skunk cabbage. My mother lives one half mile away and uphill by about 150 feet. It is always about 5 degrees warmer at my house than hers. This time of year I used to look over the valley and it was covered in fog. Now I live in the swamp!

  9. Winterwoman, I live on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia — very much the Northwest — and walk along Duck Creek every morning this winter, including this rainy morning in April past literally hundreds of skunk cabbage fully in bloom. You have inspired me to take photographs tomorrow. Thanks.

  10. Many thanks for all the information. I love Sc and take photos of it every year. I wondered what False Hellabore was and now I know (have photos of it but didn’t know what it was).

    Dr Bob I suspect that you can’t get rid of Skunk Cabbage easily — it probably is a very hardy and ancient plant. You must have wetlands on your property. Enjoy them and the Skunk Cabbage and be happy!


  11. Here in New Hampshire in May the Skunk Cabbage is vibrant and beautiful! I am thinking of transplanting a couple into the swampy area at the bottom of my back hill, but wonder if I’ll regret doing that. Thanks for your wonderful info!

  12. As I look in my backyard every spring (which backs up to swampy town-owned land) here in Monroe, and drive to church through Easton, CT, I see so many skunk cabbage plants, and have always thought God put so many on this Earth for a reason…I’ve even suggested to a young parishioner (Ph.D. in molecular biology, who’s researching a hormone in gila monster saliva for use to treat diabetes!!!) that there must be SOMETHING useful (besides food for wild turkeys) from them, since they’re so plentiful around here!

  13. It grows all over Vancouver Island, where I live. Native lore has it that local tribes ate it, so I sampled it, and it’s nasty! During a spring hike, my brother and I each took a piece from new leaves, pieces smaller than half your little fingernail. We chewed it and prounced it bland but edible. Then came a creeping pepperiness, which got stronger by the minute and transformed into a prickly feeling throughout the whole mouth. We cut short our hike and headed back home. Nothing we tried affected the pain. After about a day, it dulled to a numb tingling, and it was gone the day after that. It felt like having a mouth full of small needles, which describes oxalic acid crystals, so I guess they were embedded in the mucous membranes until they dissolved. Apparently they are broken down by dehydration, and some say to boil it, but it turns out the natives used it more as a wrapping than as salad. I’ll never touch it again, no matter how it is prepared; I never want to go through that agony again.

  14. I recently spotted Skunk Cabbage in the wetlands of Mt. Rainier, located in Washington State – the NW, as opposed to the stated NE region. I’m wondering if they are natural to WA state, or were simply brought over from the NE territories? Anyone know for sure?

  15. We just ate some skunk cabbage raw on a hike around Lost Lake near Hood River, Oregon. I consumed one half of a rather large leaf which measured 4 X 3 inches. My friend Sylvia ate a little less.

    We had numb tingling on our tongues and the backs of our throats a few minutes later.

    The initial taste was not unpleasant, but I detected a skunky aroma immediately reminiscient of a freshly opened Becks Beer.

  16. Re: M Gilbert

    Not only Mt. Rainier but all over the Cascades and Olympics in WA… I believe Skunk Cabbage is the most noticeable plant I see on my weekend hikes around Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Park.

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