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#bioPGH Blog: Skunk Cabbages - The Late Winter Stinker
Feb 11

#bioPGH Blog: Skunk Cabbages - The Late Winter Stinker

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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The right place at the right time! This weekend, I didn’t make it out to a park, but I noticed some other local scientists did. While the weather may have been biting, they saw one of our earliest little signs that spring is on the way — skunk cabbages!

You have probably seen (or perhaps smelled!) the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a unique early bloom before spring has begun, with its distinctive cone shape peeking out from muddy snow-covered ground. Neither skunk nor cabbage, this hardy plant rises from a landscape still clinging to winter, yet any snow immediately around the skunk cabbage’s base is melted. Have you ever wondered about this curious little plant who triumphantly sprouts through cold weather and announces its presence with a distinct odor? Let’s learn more about it!

You are most likely to spy a skunk cabbage near a wetland or in a low, soggy area. Though it can only handle standing water for a limited amount of time, the skunk cabbage needs damp soil for optimal growth. When you do spot one, the most visible parts of a skunk cabbage are the spathe and the spadix. The spathe is the large hood-like sheath that makes up the bulk of the aboveground part of a skunk cabbage. It usually is a mottled purple-green-yellow color and looks like a thick, curved leaf wrapping around a center point. The spadix, on the other hand, is the structure inside the spathe and is actually a stalk of teeny-tiny flowers.

Credit: Wikimedia user Sakaori CC-BY-SA-3.0

These tiny flowers don’t smell like roses, though. Skunk cabbages are most appropriately known for their distinct smell of rotting carrion. This blunt stink, especially if you accidentally step on one, serves the important role of attracting pollinators. For pollination purposes, skunk cabbages rely on flies and insects who would normally dine on carrion, and to attract something that likes the smell of dead meat, well…one must smell like dead meat.

As if that weren’t intriguing enough, these plants are what is called thermogenic — they generate their own heat. If you’ve seen skunk cabbages in early spring, when there is still some light snow on the ground, you might have noticed that the space directly around the base of the skunk cabbage is snow-free. That is because skunk cabbages can raise their own internal temperatures up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature! The spadix warms up by quickly metabolizing starches that were stored in the roots over winter, and the burned up energy radiates as heat.

Keep your eyes out for our stinky little sign of early spring. They are starting to make their annual appearance!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: If you’d like to find skunk cabbages, check out trails near wetlands. Skunk cabbages need plenty of water in the soil and prefer wetter ground. Teachers, with a bit of planning and the right equipment, you can try a variation of this lab project developed at the Central Connecticut State University. I also enjoy writing about nature when the weather isn't great - maybe try your hand at something fun and silly, like my silly skunk cabbage haiku:

Stinky little friend
Thermogenic skunk cabbage
Lots of flies like you

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.


Penn State University: Ecologist’s Notebook Blog

National Wildlife Federation: Skunk Cabbage

Ito et al 2004: Temperature-Triggered Periodical Thermogenic Oscillations in Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Photo Credit: Cover, Pixabay user Tirnanognaturals; header, Pexels CC0; all others, Maria Wheeler-Dubas