Skunk Cabbage Blooming in Cootes Paradise

Skunk Cabbage Blooming in Cootes Paradise

Skunk Cabbage plant - spathe pod

I have lived in Ontario my whole life, and despite trekking through the bush as a child, and doing endless hikes as an adult, this past spring was  the first time that I have ever come across a Skunk Cabbage plant at Cootes Paradise, in Hamilton, Ontario…lots of them, in fact.

Skunk Cabbage plant growing among fallen oak leaves in the spring

Bob and I were visiting the Arboretum at The Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, taking advantage of some fantastic warm spring weather.  There are many different hiking trails at the Arboretum, and it was in a muddy patch at the edge of the Marsh Trail that we spotted some significant new shoots poking up through the dead and decaying leaf matter.

Skunk Cabbage plant growing up through fallen leaves in the spring time

The burgundy and chartreuse coloured “flower” seemed to defy the still partially frozen earth from which it grew, until I learned later that Skunk Cabbage is able to generate temperatures of up to 15-35°C (59-95°F) above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration.  The plant, in effect, melts its way through the frozen ground, making it one of the first spring plants to emerge in the forest.

the pathe pod of a skunk cabbage growing in the Cootes Paradise, wetlands in Hamilton - Ontario

Upon closer inspection, I saw that the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage actually are found within the large burgundy bract, or spathe, that forms a sheath to enclose the flower cluster.  The petal-like spathe serves to attract insects to the plant for purposes of pollination.

Skunk Cabbage - with spadix knob revealed - Hamilton - Ontario

Skunk Cabbage plant - closeup of the spadix knob

The cluster of tiny flowers is produced within the outer bract on a fleshy spike called a spadix.  Even though Skunk Cabbage blooms while there is still snow and ice on the ground, early insects pollinate the flowers when they enter into the spathe seeking the warmth and shelter within the thick bract.

Skunk Cabbage plant among fallen leaves in Hamilton - Ontario

Skunk Cabbage is known by several different names, such as Clumpfoot Cabbage, Meadow Cabbage or Swamp Cabbage, but no matter the name, it is a low-growing, foul smelling plant that thrives in wetlands.  Only when the plants’ leaves are broken or torn is the pungent odor released.

Jean stands beside Skunk Cabbage plants in Hamilton - Ontario

Bob and I found the patches of Skunk Cabbage where melt water from the winter’s snow had accumulated in a small gully.

Skunk Cabbage plant growing among fallen leaves in the spring

Skunk Cabbage has been widely used over the centuries as a medicinal plant.  In the 19th century, a drug extracted from the plant was used to treat dropsy, rheumatism, respiratory diseases and nervous disorders.  Indigenous people of North America also used the plant as seasoning in soups and stews, but only after the leaves were dried.

picture of a Skunk cabbage plant's spathe pod in cootes paradise wetlands, Hamilton, Ontario

With brilliant March sunlight shining through the fleshy bract, the rich burgundy colour is really enhanced.

Skunk cabbage plant - view of the spathe pod in springtime

Skunk Cabbage plant in Hamilton swamp - Ontario

Early in the growing season, the stems of the Skunk Cabbage remain below ground.  The  broad, flat leaves will emerge later and will grow to a large size…up to 21 inches long and 16 inches wide.  Each plant can achieve a breadth of 3 feet, making for a very lush, green clump of greenery on the forest floor.  En masse, they would be downright tropical in appearance.

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11 comments

  • So glad you blogged about them, my Husband and I both work in the gardening industry (www.vennigardens.com) and ‘discovered’ them last year on a Niagara Falls trip – much researching followed and we were amazed to discover those crazy attributes (like melting the snow around them)
    then they seem to just disappear – a very cool ephemeral

    • Hi Candy. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. By coincidence, the same weekend as Bob and I discovered the skunk cabbage, my daughter came across some in an area adjacent to the Humber River here in the city. I don’t know how I missed them over the years. They are quite an intriguing plant.

  • Amazing what a beautiful world .Ilka

    • That’s the way I look at it, too. So many wonderful miracles occur in nature, and most people just take them for granted. I’m glad you enjoyed viewing our blog.

      • I am so very grateful that you took the time to do photos + share. Nature has so many wonderful things that when I get tired of human behaviour I just feast on treats such as your amazing story. Read about them in The Toronto Star this year [article by Bream] and I was stunned & started doing research on them but these are the most beautiful images that I have seen. Once again, thanks!

        • You are welcome. We appreciate your kind comments. I find nature truly inspiring and love nothing more than getting outdoors to revel in the wonder of the plants and wildlife. So much beauty surrounds us if we just take time to look for it.

          • Phyllis Walker

            I am busy thinking ahead to seeing Skunk Cabbages in 2014. I called the RBGardens & suggested that maybe they could put on a little tour for those who wanted to see the ones that grow near the Marsh Trail and I wondered if you could be the guides? Heh-heh! Seriously, it is wonderful to share your knowledge. I am a mover & shaker! How else can a city senior see the Skunk Cabbage? That is my goal for 2014, more should be done to publicize these spectacular plants that are as brief a beauty as the Shakura Cherry blossoms that I go to see on May 6th. in High Park.

            • Thanks for your comments, Phyllis. Your suggestion that the Royal Botanical Gardens do a guided tour featuring the numerous varieties of spring wildflowers and plants is a good one. We do not live near the gardens, so wouldn’t want to commit to being the guides. Thanks for the vote of confidence, though, in our abilities to share our knowledge. It is much appreciated.

              • Phyllis Walker

                Thanks! I am staying on this ‘project’… enjoy this wonderful day1
                Phyllis

  • Skunk cabbage is a favorite food for black bears, after they get out of hibernation. They like greens, such as grasses and skunk cabbage, that clean out their systems, after their prolonged winter slumber. In the autumn, their calorie intact is equivalent to a human being eating 28 banana splits a day. When they hibernate, they like snag stumps, where the fallen wood chips provide a nice, warm, and dry bed. A fallen log, will allow snow and rain to get in, and cause skin aliments. Bull Run, the watershed for the city of Portland, Oregon, has the highest density of black bears anywhere in the United States. Because of its high percentage of snag stumps, and a lot of skunk cabbage grows there.

    • How fascinating! I guess black bears can tolerate the crystal bundles of calcium oxalates found in the leaves, which are toxic to humans. It makes sense that these early shoots of the skunk cabbage would provide much needed nourishment for bears as they emerge from hibernation. There wouldn’t be much else around for them to eat until a little later in the season.