Symplocarpus foetidus (Eastern Skunk Cabbage) bonanza in the mountains of North Carolina — 2019-02-16

Back in the saddle again! I strive to have a post in January of each year, but this year, life got in the way a little bit. However, while all you northern folks are still snowed in, we in the south have flowers blooming. The plant which is the subject of this blog post is Symplocarpus foetidus or Eastern Skunk Cabbage. My good friend, Alan Cressler, met me at the house early Saturday morning, and we wasted no time in heading on our 3-hour trip to get to several bog sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway where we hoped to find Skunk Cabbage in flower.

This is a rather strange plant if nothing more than why it was named, Skunk Cabbage. Generally found in more northerly climes, Skunk Cabbage does make its way as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee (where it is considered endangered). It gets its common name from the malodorous “fragrance” it emits from its flowers and its leaves, when crushed – supposedly like a skunk. Thus the botanical epithet, foetidus, meaning “smelling extremely unpleasant”. To me, though, it smells more like burned rubber or plastic. In any case, it doesn’t take long to be overcome with disgust in its presence.

The 2 to 3-inch (5 to 7.5-cm) flowers are thick and leather-like. They are quite tough, but snap like celery stalks when bent or, heaven forbid, stepped on. Because this is my first occasion to study and photograph these mysterious flowers, I am amazed at the color patterns and color varieties that we found on our trip to the bogs along the Blue Ridge Parkway in extreme northwestern North Carolina. Here is an image of a typical Skunk Cabbage flower which we encountered in one of the several bogs we visited:

Skunk CabbageSkunk Cabbage

Here is an image of the cross section of one of the flowers. I collected one of the flowers to enable me to show you the important parts of the flowers. Note the knobby spadix enclosed within the thick, colorful spathe.

Cross section of Skunk Cabbage flower

As I previously stated, this is a very interesting plant. According to The National Wildlife Federation’s website about Skunk Cabbage,”The skunk cabbage is a flowering perennial plant and is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The flowers appear before the leaves and are characterized by a mottled maroon hood-like leaf called a spathe, which surrounds a knob-like structure called a spadix. The spadix is actually a fleshy spike of many petal-less flowers. As the flowers mature, the spathe opens more to allow pollinators such as flies and carrion beetles to enter and pollinate the flowers.”

It goes on to say, “Skunk cabbages can be found throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, west to Minnesota and southeast to Tennessee and North Carolina. A similar plant, the western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is found in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and British Columbia. The skunk cabbage emerges from late February through May (depending on the region) in woodlands, wetlands, or near streams. Most animals avoid skunk cabbage because it causes a burning sensation when eaten, but bears will eat young plants in the spring. Native Americans have used it as a medicinal treatment for coughs and headaches. For a time in the 1800s, it was sold as a drug called dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.”

I recently learned that another, possibly unique feature of the Skunk Cabbage flower is its ability to generate heat in very cold weather. It not only allows it to emerge from frozen ground and bloom, but it is thought to attract insects and give them a safe place to hang around until the weather warms up. When the temperature is below freezing, the flowers can warm up to 70 degrees F (21 degrees C), which melts the snow around the flowers. Because there was no snow around the plants we photographed, we were unable to show this phenomenon. However, here and here are links to a couple of Internet images which show melted snow around the flowers.

The plants are interesting, as well, because they have contractile roots which pull the plant into the muck as the plant grows. That means that a mature plant will be awfully difficult to dig up in one piece.

The flowers, when pollinated, produce rounded seeds which are about 1/2 inch (12 mm) wide. Here is a shot from a friend, Chance Feimster, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He recently found a group of sprouting seeds at a site that had been disclosed to me by a Flickr friend, BlueRidgeKitties. Check out her wonderful photostream on Flickr. Here is the image of the sprouting seeds:

Sprouting Skunk Cabbage seeds

While almost ankle-deep in one of the bogs we visited, Alan spotted a couple of Skunk Cabbage seeds — one of which was sprouting:

Sprouting Skunk Cabbage seed

Although the plant seems to prefer really mucky sites, we also found it along the drier flood plain of some local creeks. But here is the typical, boot-sucking mud environment where the plants seem to do best:

Really muddy, boggy site for Skunk Cabbage

Really muddy, boggy site for Skunk Cabbage

Here is Alan photographing a specimen or two in the bog:

Alan Cressler in the middle of the Skunk Cabbage bog

Before I forget it, I must show you what the plant looks like in the middle of the summer. Last year, Alan and I visited a Skunk Cabbage bog on the Parkway where we discovered the plants in their full vegetative state. The leaves are large, thick and crinkly and measure 15.5–21.5 inches (40-55 cm) long and 12–15.5 inches (30-40 cm) wide. This shot by Alan shows them growing in a less mucky environment with native ferns:

Summer flush of Skunk Cabbage leaves

Now, let’s have a look at some of the amazing color forms of the Skunk Cabbage flowers we saw on this trip:

Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage

Most of the flowers we saw were not fully open, so the spadix is not visible in these shots:

Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage

As you have probably figured out by now, I am partial to the yellower ones, but the red and purple ones are equally attractive:

Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Skunk Cabbage

Here is one that was growing almost submerged in water:

Almost submerged Skunk Cabbage flower

While photographing the flowers, we noticed a number of signs of herbivory of the flowers. Most of the damaged flowers we saw were at the drier of the three sites. While I understand that deer will chew on the flowers, we noticed scat and hoof prints which indicated wild, feral hogs. Here are a couple of images of the flower damage:

Skunk Cabbage herbivory Skunk Cabbage herbivory

Not a bad day when I can spend time with good company and photographing a “lifer” plant. And we had no shortage of beautiful flowers at our disposal. I have been wanting, for a long time, to locate some of the high mountain bogs that provide habitat for this strange plant. Networking with like-minded friends whom I have met on Flickr and Face Book provided the needed directions to a couple of the sites we visited. We actually discovered that large, mucky site on our own while driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was obvious from the road that it was full of Skunk Cabbage plants.

A wide range of our southern Spring ephemerals are just around the corner. Stay tuned for lots of colorful wildflower images from the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Until then,

–Jim

10 comments


  • Tony Willis

    welcome back,beautiful photographs as usual.

    A really interesting plant

    February 17, 2019
  • Jim Dollar

    Wonderful work–and you did indeed work for these photos! Beautiful work!

    February 17, 2019
  • I’ve seen skunk cabbage in the woods for many years, but I’d never seen the open flowers–what a discovery! Thank you for braving the boggy ground to bring us these marvelous sights.

    February 17, 2019
  • Liz Fox

    What a way to begin the year. I do wish you two had taken a “before” and “after” shot of both of YOU after your day’s adventure. (Who was unlucky enough to drive his vehicle on this particular day)? Quite fascinating narrative and photos. As always, you are educating all of us in such a delightful way.

    February 17, 2019
  • Margie

    I’ve wanted to see skunk cabbage all my life and got to see my first one on Mt. Ranier! Wish I had known of you in my younger days! I’m from North Alabama and had to go all the way to Washington? When they were right at my doorstep! Since I can’t get out and wade bogs anymore you’ll never know how much I enjoy your adventures! Bless

    February 18, 2019
  • Alan Cressler

    Sure am glad we got to see this species in bloom. It was a great trip.

    February 18, 2019
  • Tony Futcher

    Love the pictures. I have enjoyed the Skunk Cabbage for decades. Now if I could only capture images like these!

    Wonderful!

    February 18, 2019
  • Lee Casebere

    Nice that you are “back in the saddle” Jim!! I’ve missed your fine blogs! For me it’s so cool to read about this adventure to find a plant that is quite rare in your neck of the woods. Although it is very localized in central Indiana where I live, it’s not hard to find at all in the northern part of the state. It can be rather “ho hum” for me, but I can understand your enthusiasm for seeing it on the edge of its range. Congrats on a successful field trip!

    February 18, 2019
  • George Baird

    Thank you for clearing up a misunderstanding. We have been taught during walks in the woods that false hellebore and skunk cabbage are the same thing, at least in the Catskills. It is quite clear they are not. Now I know what to really look for in early spring.
    Those shots of the young flowers evoke sculptures and drawings I have seen of simplified birds interacting with each other. And that shot of the two coming out of the water with the reflections — exquisite. Nice work!

    February 18, 2019
  • Walter K Ezell

    Weird looking little plants.

    March 01, 2019

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