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