Blooming skunk cabbage is a sure sign of spring

Blooming skunk cabbage is a sure sign of spring

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, one spring recently was the first time that I have ever come across a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) plant…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 and 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 spathe 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 meltwater 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.  Because fresh leaves and the roots are toxic, I won’t be using this plant in any of my cooking.

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

This 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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