Environmental Almanac

On the hunt for first flower of spring


The Symplocarpus foetidus, or Skunk Cabbage

Rob Kanter

The weather last Wednesday morning was hostile. The air temperature had sunk to 16 degrees overnight, and the wind was blowing from the northwest at 15 miles an hour. What a day to go looking for wildflowers. But that’s exactly what I did.

See, if you wait until April, when showy beauties like Virginia bluebells carpet the woodland floor, you’ve missed the emergence of spring’s first wildflowers by more than a month already.

Thanks to guidance from Rick Larimore, who is a wetland plant ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, I found my quarry at the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, north of Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County. It was growing thickly in a large swath along the base of a hill, where water from the adjoining upland seeps to the surface and keeps the ground saturated through much of the year.

I have to admit that the flower of the plant in question, which goes by the scientific name Symplocarpus foetidus, is not attractive in conventional terms. It’s a small, spongy, egg-shaped affair that grows up hidden within a specialized leaf that forms a hood around it, in botanical terms, a “spathe.”

Unlike the flower it contains, however, this spathe is a work of art. Bulbous at the base, which you could encircle with your thumb and index finger, it extends upward in a twisting, tapering spiral three to six inches tall. In color, this spathe may be as nondescript as the winter ground from which it grows, dullest brown or gray. But it may also be quite dramatic. Some I saw were wine-red, marked with lighter shades the color of brick and speckles of pink.

Thermal image showing the heat generated by the Skunk Cabbage; created by Paul Nabity, U of I Institute for Genomic Biology

Paul Nabity

Aside from the beauty of its spathe, Symplocarpus foetidus distinguishes itself from all other plants native to Illinois by the fact that it generates heat--enough so that its flower can remain 36 degrees F warmer than the surrounding air for a period of about two weeks. This capacity allows it to grow in frozen soil, and also provides an inducement for early emerging insects, by which it is pollinated, to hang around.

I’ve been coy about calling Symplocarpus foetidus by its common name because to do so is to draw attention to aspects of its personality that people may find unappealing. That’s “skunk cabbage,” and this is definitely a plant that lives down to its name.

As the flower of skunk cabbage matures it gives off a distinct, skunk-like odor, an odor that can also be produced by crushing any part of the plant. That’s unattractive to people, but a turn-on for carrion-eating insects, and, hey, a plant needs to please its pollinators.

Something cool about skunk cabbage that you can’t know by observing its above-ground components is that it grows deeper into the earth every year, pulled downward by a massive root system that alternately extends and then gradually contracts. On account of that, it is said to be impossible to dig an old one out of the ground.

If you are not inclined to seek out the wet areas where skunk cabbage grows in the next few weeks, you might look for it later in the season as its giant leaves unfurl, some to lengths of more than two feet. But don’t wait too long. As summer begins to wear, the leaves of skunk cabbage die back in their own unpleasant way, dissolving into a smelly black slime rather than drying out.