skunk cabbage-Nicholas Tonelli

A close-up view of a blooming eastern skunk cabbage. Photo: Nichols Tonelli.

skunk cabbage-yanga

Skunk cabbage likes growing conditions to be wet! Photo: Michele Yanga.

By Joseph Mooney


Each week we showcase a plant that’s native to the continental United States. This week’s plant is eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).
It’s late winter and the snow just melted in southeast Michigan, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see any wildflowers on your late-winter walks. In fact, one of our most striking native plants is also the earliest blooming wildflower. Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is found in many Michigan counties, usually in wet or low-lying areas.
Eastern skunk cabbage grows from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. Characteristics of the plant include an early spring bloom of 4-inch tall mottled purple flowers that produce a pungent odor—hence the plant’s common name. Leaves emerge after the bloom and can reach nearly 22 inches long and 16 inches wide.
skunk cabbage leaves-yanga

When the leaves of eastern skunk cabbage appear after the flowers, they can be quite large. Photo: Michele Yanga.

skunk cabbage-metzler

A huddle of eastern skunk cabbage growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Photo: John Metzler.

This is the eastern skunk cabbage’s relative from the other coast, western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus). Photo: Martin Bravenboer.

This isn’t a plant you’re likely to find at a native plant nursery. Your best chance of experiencing eastern skunk cabbage is on an outdoor walk near a wetland or low-lying area. The trails and natural areas at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum are great places to see Symplocarpus. 
Fun facts about Eastern skunk cabbage:
  • Eastern skunk cabbage has a cousin native to the Pacific Northwest called western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus). It’s readily distinguished from eastern skunk cabbage by its yellow spathe.
  • Skunk cabbage produces heat to melt the snow so it can sprout and bloom.
  • The leaves and flowers produce a strong, uniquely putrid smell.
  • Skunk cabbage has a special root system that pulls the rhizome into the ground as the plant ages.
Read a fascinating profile of Eastern skunk cabbage at the University of Michigan Herbarium website.
Sources: University of Michigan Herbarium; USDA; National Wildlife Federation; University of Wisconsin Extension.
Photos: Skunk cabbage growing in water: Michele Yanga; single skunk cabbage flower: Nichols Tonelli; skunk cabbage leaves: Michele Yanga; multiple skunk cabbage blooms: John Metzler; western skunk cabbage: Martin Bravenboer.
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