A hot little plant in spring

Eastern skunk cabbage, though rare, does grow in North Carolina.

I was surprised this week to see trout lilies nearly in bloom.  This seems early for them to be out. I love their shiny green and brown speckled leaves, reminiscent of the native book trout that gives them their name. I always thought they were the first wildflower of spring. Spotting them is usually a happy occurrence – a reminder that spring is on its way. But seeing them so early is a little unnerving. It seems an early spring has been the norm the past few years, and so far, we haven’t had much winter weather.  

But I just learned that there is a wildflower that blooms even earlier, although it’s much more rare than the trout lily and certainly much smellier – the skunk cabbage. Its flower is specially adapted to be able to shoot up even through snow-covered ground.

Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) – also known as polecat weed or devil’s tobacco – is found all along eastern North America from Canada to North Carolina. Here at the southern boundary of its range, it’s not very common. In Tennessee it is a state endangered plant. It grows in seepage bogs, often right in the middle of a stream or standing water. Wetland plants are adapted to tolerate and even thrive in difficult conditions, which gives them an advantage in filling environmental niches that less robust plants can’t tolerate. It still amazes me when I see a plant growing out of a streambed, a visible testament to how hardy it is – a living thing with a strong will to both survive and thrive in tough circumstances.

Skunk cabbage is appropriately named, both for its looks and its smell. The odor is likened to rotting meat and is believed to attract pollinators such as flies and gnats. The flower comes up in early spring before the leaves appear above ground. This plant is one of a very few with the unusual ability to generate heat, known as thermogenesis. Through cellular respiration it can raise the temperature above the flower to as much as 35 degrees Celsius above the surrounding air temperature. The heat thaws the ground so the flower can emerge, and it intensifies the scent that attracts its pollinators. This rare talent also means that the flower is one of the first blooms available to pollinators, giving skunk cabbage another edge over its competition. If you break or crush the leaves, the odor becomes even stronger, and it’s thought that this may discourage larger animals from getting close and eating the plant or disturbing the sensitive, wet habitat where the plant lives.

The bloom is a single leaf-like sheathe called a “spathe,” that is hood-shaped and deep purple with lighter streaking. Inside rests a “spadix,” which is a spiky cluster of flowers (think of a calla lily). Another interesting quality of skunk cabbage is that it possesses contractile roots, which means the plant grows deeper into the ground with age. Because of the deep roots, the plants are extremely long-lived, possibly surviving up to 100 years. That makes the plant even more impressive – long-lived in harsh conditions.

Skunk cabbage isn’t common but is quite distinctive, both in the habitat it prefers and the smell it produces. Species tend to go extinct first on the edges of their ranges, so information about where they exist today can help greatly in keeping them from disappearing in our area. This is a unique, albeit smelly, species – but undoubtedly one that has earned its place in the ecosystem.

Crystal Cockman