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Skunk Cabbage Plants

Sonia Nair Jun 3, 2019
As the name rightly suggests, a skunk cabbage emits an offending odor. Here are some interesting facts about this plant.
Skunks are infamous for the foul odor they emit. So, it can be inferred that a plant named after the animal may have some link to the foul smell. In fact, skunk cabbage plants too have a pungent odor, which is compared to that of rotten meat. There are three plant species that are referred to as skunk cabbage.
One is Symplocarpus foetidus, which is otherwise known as eastern variety.
The second one is Lysichiton americanus that is commonly called western skunk cabbage, swamp lantern or the American skunk cabbage.
The third species is the Asiatic or the white variety that is scientifically termed as Lysichiton camtschatcensis. While all these plants belong to the family Araceae, the eastern skunk cabbage belongs to the genus Symplocarpus, whereas the other two are members of Lysichiton genus.

Different Types

As mentioned, there are three types of skunk cabbage. All the three types develop from rhizomes and they are among the first plants to bloom in early spring. They produce flowers that are different from the typical ones. These plants produce tiny white to yellowish flowers on a spadix that is found inside a showy spathe.
The spathe, shaped like a hood is yellow in color in western skunk cabbage. In case of eastern type, the spathe is brownish purple, speckled with greenish-yellow dots. It is almost white in Asiatic variety.
All the three species are low growing plants that are found in wetlands and swamps. While the western skunk plants are found in Pacific Northwest, Asiatic ones are native to certain Asian regions. The eastern type is native to some parts of North America and Asia. One of the main characteristic features of eastern skunk cabbage is thermogenesis. 
This plant (the flower, to be precise) is capable of generating temperatures that are 15 to 30°F above the atmospheric temperature. While this feature is absent in Asiatic type, it may be there in Lysichiton americanus. As Symplocarpus foetidus is widely acknowledged as the common skunk cabbage, let's see some interesting information about this plant.

Interesting Facts

As mentioned earlier, it is the flower of this plant that emerges first, during late winter to early spring.
  • In case of Symplocarpus foetidus or eastern skunk cabbage plant, the spathe (outer hood) is around 10 to 15 centimeters long. The spadix found inside the spathe is almost 5 to 10 centimeters in length.
  • As the plant is thermogenic, the flower produces enough heat to melt the snow covering on the ground. Even though, the flower is smelly, the heat produced by the flower helps to spread the odor.
  • Insects, which get attracted by the odor enter the spathe of these flowers and mate inside. Insects that fly from one flower to another facilitate pollination.
  • By late spring (sometimes early spring), leaves will emerge in a rolled form and open gradually. The leaves of this plant have an average length of 50 centimeters and a width of around 30 to 40 centimeters.
  • The plant has no visible stem and is found as a rosette of leaves. This plant has contractile roots that are found to shrink, as they grow into the ground. This makes them grow deep and almost impossible to dig out.
  • The weird-looking fruit of this plant appears during mid-summer to late fall. The green oval-shaped fruit emerges from the ground and turns black as it gets ripe. The fruit of this plant has a wrinkled outer skin and whitish flesh. Around ten to twelve seeds are found embedded in the flesh, along the periphery of the fruits.
  • During fall, the leaves of this plant will fall and rot. Flowers develop from the rhizome, the next spring. New plants will develop from the seeds too.
Are skunk cabbage plants poisonous? Though the leaves of the plant are consumed by various animals, they are poisonous for mammals. However, cooked leaves of this plant are used for both culinary as well as medicinal purposes (in raw form, they are poisonous).
To know more about these plants, you may conduct a detailed study about them. Those who are interested in growing skunk cabbage may do the same. The image here shows the flower spathe only. The leaves of this plant are green. Lysichiton americanus or western variety is mostly grown for ornamental purposes as they produce flowers with bright yellow spathe.