Every year, I take my first wildflower walk in mid-January. This year I was eager to see how our unseasonably warm winter had affected the dawning of the year’s first wildflower, the humble skunk cabbage (eastern skunk cabbage or symplocarpus foetidus).
As I had suspected, these unusual plants, with their turtle head-like blossoms, were popping up out of the murky water of a bog on our place in abundance to take a peek at the new year.
When other wildflowers still have the sense to stay dormant, skunk cabbage is busy springing to life, as stinky herald of early spring.
This hardy plant can be found on a spadix within a hood or spathe, which is brownish-purple and mottled in appearance and looking suspiciously like a turtle’s head popping up from below.
The name, skunk cabbage, comes from the pungent odor it releases when its leaves are damaged or when it flowers. So if you find one, please don’t be tempted to pluck it and give it a sniff since its “aroma” is said to be reminiscent of skunk spray or rotting meat.
If that is not a strong enough warning to keep you from taking a whiff, keep in mind that one of the chemicals that produces its odor, cadaverine, is the same chemical that makes rotting corpses smell.
Folk and Native American lore tells us that in bygone years, this smelly plant was used for medicinal purposes for many things, including headaches, convulsions or epilepsy prevention, to reduce swelling, as a treatment for dog bites, fertility and (of all things) body order — some parts of the plant are poisonous, so please don’t try any of the remedies yourself.
Besides its past medicinal uses, this unique plant is thermogenic, producing its own heat as a byproduct of cellular respiration as it grows. The plant’s cozy warm interior attracts early pollinating insects inviting them to come right inside the plant. In addition, thermal images of the skunk-cabbage plant reveal temperatures produced up to 70-degree. Its built in furnace actually melting its way through fallen snow.
With this in mind, it looks as though these little fellows may need to employ their superpowers this weekend when our balmy weather may be taking a downward turn.