Skunk Cabbage – Hidden Beauties

Skunk Cabbage

Thanks to a remarkably mild winter, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time in the woods and fields.  In fact, up until the end of January, I was still gathering and cooking wild edibles.  One day in mid January I was down in the marshes, gathering watercress from a spring fed pool, when I came across a cluster of skunk cabbage blossoms.  They quite took me by surprise.  I’m not used to encountering them before mid to late February, and here they were, a month early.  To be honest, it was a little unnerving.

Now that it’s April, many familiar old friends are starting to stick their heads through the leaves to greet the Spring.  The skunk cabbage leaves are beginning to unfurl into their familiar, yet exotic rosettes.  Even more exotic are the flowers of the skunk cabbage .  They are large, and quite beautiful, yet they are rarely appreciated or even noticed.

The main reason that these beautiful blossoms are often overlooked, is that they start to appear in the winter, often popping up through the snow.   Wherever there are swampy woodland areas there are likely to be skunk cabbage flowers throughout the marsh.  They look like colorful pixies ears, often displaying a range of colors from red to yellow and green.

If you want to enjoy these remarkable blossoms, you’ll need to put on a good pair of boots and hike into the woods at a time when there is seemingly nothing happening and look very carefully in those boggy areas that you may otherwise avoid.  The leafless pod like flowers may be hard to spot at first, but once you recognize one emerging from the mud or moss, you’ll begin to notice many.  They vary in size, shape and color, each with its own personality.

You’ll find them growing until mid March when the leaves begin to open and the flowers decay back into the swamp.

Skunk cabbage is what is known as a thermogenic plant.  It can adjust its own body temperature, such that it could be unto 50 degrees warmer than its surroundings.  This allows it to send out its somewhat fetid (skunk like) aroma on cold days, to attract flies that seek the warmth of the encompassing spathe that makes up the outside of the flower.  They will often pass the night in the warm interior, inadvertently gathering pollen along the way, which they carry to the next flower they visit.

If you peek inside the enveloping fleshy spathe you will find a spadix, a ball like cluster of flower parts that produce the pollen and the pea sized seeds.  Toward the end of March, this is often all that remains of the flower.  By mid April, they are shriveled, black nubs that are hidden by the unfurling leaves.

If you start to look in the woods during the next couple of weeks, you may see the last of the flowers besides the emerging clusters of leaves.  Even if you’ve missed the flowers this season, you’ll know to get out there next February with a camera and capture some of these little works of art.


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  1. Edna P Applenut

    March 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I went out to the marshes yesterday. There are still lots of flowers to be seen. I couldn’t get over how exotic they are. They look like they might have come from another planet.

  2. Marty Rosen

    April 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Skunk cabbage pollen is also the season’s first honeybee crop! It was unnerving to see it up so early this year. The bees weren’t ready to forage at enough of a distance to fully take advantage of it.
    (Great site!~ Thanks!)

  3. Paul Tappenden

    April 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Luckily the early flies use the spathes as a cold weather hang out, and do the work for the bees.

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