Skunk Cabbage

Few are the poets who sing the praises of the earliest and largest of our spring flowers. But this is the fate of the skunk cabbage — a reddish-maroon flower that looks like a very pointy cowl and is often flecked with yellowish splotches.


This cowl-like part of the flower, called a spathe, is usually found in wet woodlands and swamps and comes up before the leaves of the plant even begin to show. The skunk cabbage is so intent on getting an early start, that it generates enough of its own heat (sometimes over 70° F.) to melt the frozen ground and snow above it. As a matter of fact, if you stick your finger inside the spathe near its base on a really cold day, and you are likely to feel the warmth produced by this plant.


Once on the surface, one side of the hood opens to reveal the knobby, oval shaped spadix, which is the actual reproductive part of the plant. At this time, the plant gives off a foul smell similar to that of rotting meat.  This smell can be a bit repulsive to humans, but it does appeal to the flies, springtails, beetles and other  insects that are attracted to the scent of carrion and pollinate the plant


Later in the spring, the green of skunk cabbage’s large leaves provides the dominant color on the ground below the trees.  However, by late July, most of them will have disappeared. If you bruise or break one of these leaves, you will understand how this plant got its name, for they give off a skunk-like smell, that, once again, is not pleasant to humans.


Many poets may have avoided writing about the skunk cabbage because it is stinky, un-flowerlike, and lives in swamps. Also, there is no word that really rhymes with “cabbage.”  But the poet Mary Oliver did capture the essence these early spring flowers when she wrote “What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

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