Just as the name indicates, Skunk Cabbage is quite smelly. It prefers to grow in wetlands and is low to the ground. There are several commonly know names for this interesting plant. They include Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Foetid Pothos, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Polecat Weed and Swamp Cabbage. It grows naturally in the eastern parts of North America all the way from southern Quebec and Nova Scotia to parts of North Carolina and Tennessee and west to Minnesota. It can also be found in parts of Siberia, China, Japan and Korea. In the state of Tennessee the Skunk Cabbage is protected as an endangered plant.
The Skunk Cabbage will bloom long before the other spring plants. It does not look like any other wildflowers. It has a hood shape. The Skunk Cabbage has maroon and greenish-yellow streaks. It can actually make enough heat to melt the surrounding snow. It has the ability to create temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius. To do this it uses a process called thermogenesis where it uses cyanide-resistant cellular respiration to create the warmth. It has large leaves that can be from 40 to 55 centimeters long and 30 to 40 centimeters wide. In the spring the Skunk Cabbage will bloom with the flowers showing above the muddy soil. The flowers are produced on a long spadix (a fleshy clublike spike that bears small flowers) and then contained inside a spathe (a large bract that forms a sheath to enclose the flower clusters of certain types of plants).
A smelly odor is produced when the leaf of the Skunk Cabbage is broken or pressed. It is not harmful. It is not a poisonous plant to touch. The odor does attract flies, stone flies and bees that help pollinate the plant. The plant reproduces by using hard seeds that are pea sized and are carried away by water or animals after they fall off. The odor is believed to keep away larger animals that would damage the plant. The Skunk Cabbage has roots that are contractile. This simply means that they contract after growing in the ground. This pulls the plant stem farther down into the mud. That will help the plant grow down instead of up. The plant will grow deeper into the ground every year. This makes the older plants tough if not impossible to pull up.
The Skunk Cabbage has been used for medicinal purposes in the past and occasionally it is still cultivated in water gardens. The Native Americans used this plant for medicine and seasoning, and they considered it to possess magical qualities.