In March if you go for a hike along the inlet of a lake or in a wooded wetland you are sure to spot the buds of the skunk cabbage emerging through the leaf litter. As the sun warms the ground the hooded flowers wrapped in a spathe or modified leaf entice native flies, bees and other insects to pollinate them. There is really little else flowering at that time of year.
The colors of the spathes vary from very dark maroon to bright green to green with maroon splotches and speckles. The flower has no petals but is composed of 4 fleshy sepals with the stamens rising above ready to release pollen. The style rises above the middle of the flower where the insects are able to pollinate them.
What is miraculous about this plant is that it actually has the capacity to generate heat. You can actually feel the heat radiating from the spathe. The flower produces enough heat to stay above the outside air temperature by about 36 degrees. This melts snow and ices exposing the plant to pollinating insects at flowering time.
After flowering the leaves unfurl, they are large bright green, crinkled with deep veins and really lovely. They remind me of a large hosta. Skunk cabbage gets it name because when the leaves are stepped on or crushed they emit an odor very much like that of a skunk. The plant itself doesn't smell; it is only when the leaves are bruised.
Skunk cabbage produces a very large tap root this makes it difficult to transplant. Digging it will nearly always damage the root. It is best to grow this plant from seed. As the leaves die down you will notice the exotic looking seed heads, ball shaped fruit. They are eaten by small mammals and deer so as soon as you notice them in September you need to harvest them if you want seed. The seeds are about the diameter of a dime but dark brown in color and about 1/4 inch thick. Plant the seed about 1 inch deep and place a screen or some sort of barrier over them so the squirrels don't dig them up. Keep the containers moist.
Symplocarpus foetidus - Skunk cabbage
-Adds interest to the garden
-Very early spring flowering
-Food for native insects in the very early spring
-Height: 2 to 3 feet
-Zone: 3 to 7