Weird and Wonderful Plants: Skunk cabbage is cool! Or should I say hot?

Skunk cabbage is blooming right now in wet, marshy wooded areas of the Great Lakes, and Northeastern states.

Skunk cabbage flowers at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in northwest Indiana (Photo: FoySpicer)

In my area, Indiana, skunk cabbage is the first ephemeral of spring. Symplocarpus foetidus are weird looking plants. Unfortunately they earn their name. The spade shaped flowers smell awful. It’s how they attract the flies and other insects that do the pollinating.

More impressive than their smell is the fact they can produce heat in process called thermogenesis. The skunk cabbage blooms early in the spring, often when there is still snow on the ground. The plant can literally melt the snow around it giving pollinators access to the flowers. The skunk cabbage is able to heat the air 36 degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient temperatures. One theory is that thermogenesis originally developed in plants as a way to spread their fragrance (a term I use loosely, odor, is probably a better word) a greater distance, enticing pollinators far away to stop by.

Thermogenesis is not easy; the skunk cabbage must use tremendous amounts of energy to stay warm. In fact, the plants employ a whole different respiratory process, one that uses mitochondria and stored fats which are not a part of their normal respiration process. It takes a lot of reserves to give off heat.

Only the flowers have this unique ability to heat-up. There are other plants in the arum family (Araceae) that have this same ability including the impressive corpse flower (Titan arum) that only blooms once every 7-10 years and has a commanding three meters tall spade flower. They are the largest flower in the world.

Once the blooms are done skunk cabbage goes back to normal plant respiration and puts out big leaves that resemble hostas or green rhubarb. The spent flower can often be seen into early summer at the base of the leaves.

Have you seen any skunk cabbage blooming this spring?

For more information and photos of skunk cabbage check out:

University of Minnesota Extension’s Yard and Garden article

Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools article

Pennsylvania State University New Kensington’s Virtual Nature Trail article

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