The skunk cabbage is among our earliest flowering plants, sometimes emerging through the frozen soil and snow and at a time of year when temperatures may still dip below freezing.
The large maroon spathe forms a cup around the slender finger-like spadix, which is covered in small flowers. The leaves, which emerge after the flower puts on its appearance, are large, fleshy, and bright green.
The species name, foetidus, shares its root with the word “fetid,” which means "stinking." And if you don’t mind getting down on your hands and knees in the skunk cabbage’s soggy habitat to sniff this plant you’ll discover it has what most would consider an unpleasant odor. Even its common name implies a scent less than desirable, although some suggest that the odor reminds them of garlic. The odor and color of the spathe fits into the skunk cabbage’s reproductive strategy of attracting pollinating flies--that prefer rotting flesh or dung--which then carry pollen to the next plant.
Skunk cabbages can maintain a temperature inside the spathe significantly warmer than the surrounding air temperature--as much as 15-35 degrees warmer--by consuming carbohydrates stored in their fleshy rhizomes. The warmth helps in attracting cold-blooded, early-emerging pollinating insects, in developing seeds, or both, during early spring when temperatures are often chilly.
Skunk cabbages become senescent (the leaves and stems die back) by August making the plant difficult to find in late summer. They are persistent, however, so they will be found in the same area the following spring.
Skunk cabbages do not produce seed until they are five to seven years old.
Individual rhizomes, from which the leaves and flowers spring, can persist for decades, perhaps centuries.
The spathe is shaped to produce a constant movement of air within itself, helping to maintain an even temperature.
Honeybees may use the skunk cabbage as places to warm up on long flights between hive and nectar sources during cold weather.