Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

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Featured Plant: Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex W.P.C.Barton
 

Skunk-cabbage 

large photo of flower Family: Araceae - Arums

Symplocarpus:  from symploce for "connection" and carpos for "fruit", referring to connection of ovaries into compound fruit


foetidus: evil-smelling

Skunk-cabbage

It is one of the first flowers to appear in the spring usually in March. It breaks through the wetland soil, sometimes when it is still covered in snow and ice, flower cluster  to produce an egg-shaped mottled purple 4 to 6 inch high hood (spathe) that surrounds the cluster of flowers inside (spadix). Each flower contains 4 sepals and no petals and are dark yellow in color. The flowers produce heat to protect themselves from the cold spring nights and can even be seen poking up through a hole they melted in lingering ice. Pollination is by insects attracted to the heat and carrion-like scent produced from the decaying of parts of the plant.

After the flower begins to fade the large egg-shaped leaves, with a heart-shaped base on thick stalks, appear in a rosette-cluster. The leaves, sometimes to 3 feet in length, when crushed  give off the foul odor associated with its common name -skunk cabbage.
leaves

The fruits heads form in a round ball about 2 inches wide made up of many single-seeded red berry-like fruits similar to the other arums like jack-in-the-pulpit.

 

 

Ethnobotany: The root is used in many preparations as medicine and food. They are peeled, roasted and ground  into a flour. The young, uncurled leaves can be cooked as a greens after drying to remove the toxins. Indians also used the leaves as a tobacco substitute once the odor was removed.

The leaves and roots are also dried and added to honey or made into a tea to relax and ease the tension and spasms of the lungs.

Care must be taken not to crush the leaves unleashing the foul odor. They contain Calcium oxalate crystals which in large quantities can be toxic.

Other facts:  The heat produced by the flower lasts from 12-14 days and averages about 36 degrees warmer than the outside temperature day and night. It is generated by the flower heads breaking down presumably the starch stored by the massive roots and rootstock using available oxygen.

The skunk-cabbage is found in marshy to wet areas in medium to heavy shade.

Propagation: Because the roots are so massive and deep, moving a plant is impractical. The seeds can be collected in the fall and sewn directly into a suitable moist to wet wooded habitat.

Blooming Buddies. In its early stages it is found alone. Later in the season it can be found with Saxifraga pensylvanica among other moisture and shade loving plants.

 

Links:
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References
Other Featured Plants
Nature Institute


Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

Herbarium

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