skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
Dracontium foetidum L.
Ictodes foetidus (L.) Bigelow
Pothos foetidus (L.) Aiton
Pothos putorii Barton
Spathyema angusta Raf.
Spathyema foetida (L.) Raf.
Spathyema lanceolata Raf.
Spathyema latifolia Raf.
Symplocarpus foetidus forma variegatus Otsuka
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of skunk cabbage
is Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
Habit: This native perennial plant produces a rosette of basal leaves dur-
ing the spring; these leaves reach their maximum size by early summer,
nd they wither away by the end of summer.
Leaves: The blades of these leaves are up to 2' long and 1' across; they are
medium to dark green, oval or oval-ovate, smooth along the margins, and
hairless. The petioles of the leaves are initially quite short, but they later
become up to 1' long; these petioles are light green, stout, hairless, and
channeled along their inner/upper surfaces. The leaf blades have prominent
veins, especially on their lower surfaces.
Flowers: The inflorescence consists of a spadix that is surrounded by a
curved spathe; they are located near the ground. The curved spathe is
about 4-6" long and half as much across; it tapers to a point at its apex.
The convex outer surface of the spathe has stripes, streaks, or spots of
purple and green; this surface is smooth and hairless. On one side, the
spathe remains open to reveal a globoid-ovoid spadix about 2" long. This
spadix is covered in all directions with small perfect flowers. Depending
on the local ecotype, the spadix can be pale yellow to dark purple. Each
flower is about ¼" across, consisting of 4 pale sepals, no petals, and the
reproductive organs. They emit a carrion-like odor that flies can detect.
The bruised foliage of this plant can produce a similar odor.
Fruit/Seeds: The spathe soon withers away, while the spadix becomes
enlarged into a compound fruit with a blocky surface. This globoid-ovoid
compound fruit becomes about 4" tall and 3" across; it is initially green
and dark purple, but later becomes dark brown or black as it disintegrates.
The compound fruit is mature by late summer or early fall; it becomes
malodorous with age. Each simple fruit contains a single large seed about
1/3" across, or a little larger. Unless the fruit is eaten or carried off by
some animal, the seeds fall to the ground near the mother plant, where
they often germinate.
Roots: The root system consists of an elongated rootstock up to 1' long
and 2-3" across; it is surrounded by a mass of thick fibrous roots. Skunk
cabbage reproduces by reseeding itself; it does not reproduce vegetatively
through rhizomes. Colonies plants often develop at favorable sites.
REGENERATION PROCESS: When bruised or broken, all parts of
skunk cabbage give off an unpleasant odor. Various species of insects,
including those from the Orders Diptera, Coleoptera, Hymenoptera,
and Hemiptera, many of which are attracted by the odor, have been col-
lected from the inflorescences. While the specific mechanism of pollina-
tion is not fully understood, it is believed that the flowers are pollinated
by flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), carrion flies (Calliphoridae), and various
gnats. These insects are not only attracted by the unpleasant odor, but al-
so by the carrion-like appearance of the inflorescence. The attractiveness
of the flowers is enhanced by the increased temperature that is maintained
within the spathe during the early spring. Although insects are likely pol-
linators, wind tunnel observations of the inflorescence suggest a capacity
also for wind pollination. Whatever the pollination mechanism, fertiliza-
tion is limited, and few inflorescences develop into infructescences.
HABITAT TYPES: Habitats include wet deciduous woodlands, swamps,
wet thickets where some underground seepage occurs, edges of fens, seeps
along wooded hillsides, and springs. This conservative species is usually
found in shady wetlands. In more northern areas, it is also found in bogs.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Skunk cabbage prefers partial sun to light
shade and consistently wet mucky soil. Shallow standing water is tolerated
if it is temporary. This plant dislikes excessive heat from strong sunlight.
The seeds are hydrophilic and shouldn't be allowed to dry out before they
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The inflorescence develops during early
spring, before the leaves unfurl, at which time the small flowers bloom.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Skunk cabbage has a boreal distribution
in North America and it also occurs in N.E. Asia. It is possible that this
species crossed the Bering Land Bridge during one of the ice ages to reach
North America. It can be found occuring from North Carolina and Tennes-
see north (excepting Kentucky) through New England into the Canadian
maritime provinces (although not Newfoundland). It extends west to Iowa, Minnesota, and into Ontario.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The caterpillars of the two moths, Bellura
obliqua (cattail borer moth) and Phragmatobia fuliginosa (ruby tiger
moth), feed on the foliage of this plant. Slugs and snails are occasionally
observed on the foliage as well. Spiders often lurk within the spathe to
feed on insects that visit the flowers. The toxic foliage is inedible to most
herbivores because it contains crystals of calcium oxalate. However, after
they emerge from hibernation during the spring, hungry black bears and
snapping turtles occasionally eat the foliage.
Skunk cabbage, in various forms and often combined with other plants,
was used medicinally by Native Americans for a variety of ailments, in-
cluding swellings, coughs, consumption, rheumatism, wounds, convul-
sions, cramps, hemorrhages, toothaches, and headaches. Skunk cabbage
was officially listed as the drug "dracontium" in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia
from 1820 to 1880 for treating diseases of respiratory organs, nervous dis-
orders, rheumatism, and dropsy. Plants are sparingly cultivated as a curi-
osity in North American gardens and are reported to be highly prized in
aquatic gardens in European estates and public parks.
Crooked Run Valley