Early March. The snow is just melting off and the first warm rays of spring have begun. Step outside, and most of the plant world is still asleep. The leaves on the ground are heavy and soggy, and beneath them the ground is still very cold. This is the time for early-evening woodcock dances– and for skunk cabbage flowers!
In late winter/early spring, you are likely to find the flowers of this herbaceous plant popping out of the ground in wetland areas. The exotic, brownish-red flower comes up before the leaves are formed. The flower may be heavily mottled with green and maroon streaks and spots, and it is thick-skinned and leathery.
The flower has two parts–the curved exterior part is called the spathe–it looks like something alien (!); the interior, club-like part is called the spadix. Skunk cabbage gets its name from the fact that the plant smells pretty darn skunky if you break off one of the leaves and take a whiff. The flowers are likewise odiferous, but at least in their case, the strong odor of rotting flesh is functional in attracting pollinators–like carrion flies. I’ve seen honey bees peek inside too.
By early April, the flowers start to die back just as the bright green leaves simultaneously erupt from the ground. Once that happens, you can spot a patch of skunk cabbage from a good distance away because the tall (15-inch) leafy plants are just so darn obvious.
You can use this sentinel species to help find other wetland-loving wildflowers. Last spring, while I was driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I stopped near a patch of skunk cabbage that I saw near the side of the road. Nearby, I found loads of trout lilies, trilliums, and false hellebore coming up in the same damp area. Eureka!
Even though the attractive, “lettuce-like” leaves of skunk cabbage look tasty, you really should refrain from snacking on this plant while you are out in the woods! 🙂 Skunk cabbage is poisonous to mammals, and if eaten, the leaves will burn your mouth because they contain calcium oxalate crystals.
As you can imagine, this is a plant with a lot of interesting “local” names. Wikipedia provides a short list that you might enjoy: Clumpfoot Cabbage (it can be deep-rooted), Foetid Pothos (pungent!), Meadow Cabbage (sure looks edible!), Skunk Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage, and Polecat Weed. Jeez, you can almost smell it from here!
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