Walking in the woods this spring, especially in wet areas, you may notice these popping up through the snow. On closer inspection you will notice that it is, in fact, a plant! What you are seeing is the large spathe of the Skunk Cabbage plant. This plant has a very interesting flower structure and strategy for pollination.
Let’s learn about the flower structure first: The large fleshy hood is called the spathe; which encloses and protects the club-like spadix. The spadix is the surrounded by tiny flowers.
Skunk Cabbage is one of the first wildflowers that emerge in spring. This is possible because the plant produces heat, thereby melting the snow around it. The coloration of the spathe varies from greenish to purple, often accompanied by spots or stripes. Two color variations are depicted below:
Notice how the plant on the right resembles the look of raw meat, and if you smelled it you would notice a rather pungent skunky odor; hence the name Skunk Cabbage! These characteristics attract flies which pollinate these plants. You can experience the intense smell by scratching the leaf next time you see this plant in the woods.
Skunk Cabbage can be found in many of our state parks in swamp or wetland habitat. Though the plant has the “Cabbage” in name, it is not edible. The leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals that cause a painful burning sensation in the mouth when consumed. Even boiling the leaves does not rid them of all the irritating crystals.
Post by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP.