Symplocarpus foetidus

A big thank you to first-time BPotD contributor Wood_Owl@Flickr for sharing today’s image with us (original photo | Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool).

I’ve previously referred to the hesitancy on the part of my colleagues to call my western North American equivalent to today’s species “skunk cabbage”. Part of their rationale, I think, has to do with the fact that this species also bears that name, and, being eastern North American (at least in part), was undoubtedly the first of the two to receive it.

The early-blooming Symplocarpus foetidus is native to central-eastern North America and, possibly, northeast Asia. GRIN includes northeast Asia, while the Flora of North America treatment for Symplocarpus suggests the genus contains 1 or 2 species. I assume that if Symplocarpus were to be determined to contain two species that the split would be between the two disjunct groupings.

“Foetidus” means stinking (now that I think about it, we want from yesterday’s stinky toes to today’s stinky foetidus), and the species produces foul odours both from the flowers of its spadix and from the foliage when bruised or broken. In addition to the aromatic compounds it emits, the spadix is able to also (source: Flora of North America) “produce heat during flowering and can reach temperatures up to 25°C above ambient air temperature…These elevated temperatures probably play a role in pollination and in facilitating floral development at cold temperatures.”

For further reading on skunk cabbage, I recommend Craig Holdrege’s article for The Nature Institute: Symplocarpus foetidus.

Symplocarpus foetidus

12 responses to “Symplocarpus foetidus”

  1. wendy

    Sometimes when I smell an overcooked cabbage I ask myself why anyone bothers with the adjective. ‘Cabbage’ says it all.

  2. Connie

    The ability to produce so much heat during flowering is amazing!

  3. Chris N

    An amazing plant. I have photos of it popping up in February in Wisconsin melting holes through the snow and ice.

  4. Carol S

    Forget the smell. The beauty of the skunk cabbage and the fact that it is always the first botanical sign of spring here in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, make one’s earliest sighting of it an annual cause for euphoria.

  5. George Lisi

    Love these guys! Here in upland central Vermont they are uncommon and exotic creatures, our early spring correlate being False Hellebore. Wikipedia has a good piece with links to what is known about the incredible thermogenesis ..
    Daniel – when I tried to sign in I got an error message. Are you not using Type Key now?

  6. Susan

    This plant has a nostalgic fragrance for me. Many years were spent running through the woods and skunk cabbage patches with my neighborhood friends. I bet it would bring back warm memories if I had the chance to take a big wiff..

  7. Daniel Mosquin

    George, I’m fairly certain Type Key still works — but we’re about to transition (again) to a new system, so I’m not going to address the bug, if there is one. Perhaps it will be resolved then.

  8. elizabeth a airhart

    well life is just full of surprises is it not even melts snow
    wildman steve brill has a funny piece of writeing on skunk cabbage
    the watchgung mountains in nj has this plant growing my birth state
    now i live in florida and its swamp cabbage
    in my google search ithaca ny will have a skunk cabbage classic run
    thank you daniel hope the change over is a smooth one

  9. phillip

    …I see our ancestors now..”lets move from this skunk cabbage and try this fetid rotting meat plant”…Eve is waving her hand..”couldn’t we try these apple thingys ?”

  10. CherriesWalks

    So much fun when our senses are affected by plants! The fields on the forrest floors are covered with bear garlic and that sure wakes up your spring senses!!

  11. Eleanor Ryan

    Skunk cabbage and its thermogenesis is important in the springtime as it attracts with its fetid smell, flies and other insect pollinators. The warmth produced, as well as the smell may be important: perhaps the flies lay their eggs within the spadix thereby having the earliest progeny around. The plant benefits from the pollinators. Who knows who eats those early flies, perhaps a hungry bird.
    Eleanor Ryan

  12. John Snell

    Anyone in Central Vermont know where I can find Skunk Cabbage???

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