A Cabbage by Any Other Name (Would Still Stink) by Julie Craves
The edge of the wet woods on our property marks the border of an extensive plot of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). If you’re out and about in late winter in a forested area with perpetually mucky soil, you are probably familiar with this unusual plant. Their large, mottled, maroon, hooded spathes cradle the inflorescence, and show themselves through the snow like the caps of crouching sylvan gnomes. When the small flowers bloom, they stink like carrion to attract the earliest pollinators on the wing, mostly small flies and gnats. These not only find the stench appealing, but are also attracted to the heat generated by the flower spike. The warmth is thought to protect the flowers from freezing, provide a warm micro-environment for pollinators, and aids in broadcasting the floral odor by taking advantage of the spiral construction of the spathe and thermal air currents.
After the spathe withers, the very large leaves unfurl from a patient neighboring shoot. The dramatic leaves might be over two feet long, but die off by mid-summer, melting into the wetland as they decompose. A number of fly larvae have been found to feed on rotting Skunk Cabbage vegetation.
Fewer of us are likely to see the fruiting bodies – not only is Skunk Cabbage habitat likely to be mosquito-infested and squishy in summer, but the fruits themselves tend to be hard to spot. They look like solitary hand grenades, or maybe small stalked pineapples, mired in the mud. They’ll soon fall apart, with the seeds falling on the wet ground. The fibrous roots of young Skunk Cabbages are often exposed in humps on the soil surface, and reflect the shallow germination. As the perennial plants age, the roots become deeper and voluminous, anchoring plants and pulling them deeper and deeper into the earth.
Still later in the season, when insects have died and the ground is starting to freeze, you might come across the tips of new leaf spikes poking through the leaf litter, gaining a head-start on the next growing season. As steward of such a large colony, I look forward to seeing these fascinating plants rise from the snow next year.