Friday, March 18, 2016

Symplocarpus foetidus


     The earliest spring wildflower to emerge from dormancy is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). In fact, this species flowers so early, it could be considered a winter wildflower! Skunk cabbage flowers have the ability to heat up the surrounding snow, which promotes melting so it can poke its fragrant flowers up through the ground. 
     Skunk cabbage has unusual flowers, like all members of the Arum family (Araceae). They consist of a spathe, an outer sheath which surrounds the inflorescence, and a spadix, a fleshy stem on which tiny flowers are produced.

Newly emerging leaves
     Many plants that produce flowers at the surface of the ground are brown in color and stink like decaying organic matter. This is to attract pollinators, typically flies, but this also lures in beetles and ants as well. Pollinators are also attracted to the flowers because of the heat they produce which leads to another interesting evolutionary strategy.
     Why flower so early? On the one hand, there are not many pollinators available in the early spring because it is too cold for them to be active or present. However, the few insects that are active and present are looking for food and warmth. The skunk cabbage receives virtually exclusive attention because it flowers when nothing else is available.
     “Symplocarpus” is Greek for “connected fruits” and “foetidus” translates from Latin to “malodorous” meaning “smelling very unpleasant.” From this, the term “fetid” derives.

     These photos were taken in a forest preserve in Cook County on March 18, 2016.  There is a healthy population at this location.

Skunk Cabbage flowers in March

     This is what the site looks like in summer.

Seep filled with Skunk Cabbage in June


  1. These photos are SO much better than mine. What lense did you use?

  2. These photos are SO much better than mine. What lense did you use?

  3. Thank you! I have a Nikon AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G Lens.