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.