As I write this, skunk cabbage is poking through the ground, ready to begin another growing season. Why not have some fun, get down on your hands and knees in a soggy site and take a good whiff of this stinky, but particular plant. You will smell early spring pushing away Old Man Winter.
Skunk cabbage is largely an unfamiliar plant to most people who live around New York Harbor. I would think, in part, because this perennial wildflower grows mostly in freshwater wetlands and other marshy forested areas. Not many of these soggy sites are protected as parks and preserves. Let’s face it, New York Harbor is a rather salty place.
But take some time away from the coast and you will find nature to explore. Two of my favorite parks with extensive wooded wetlands to enjoy are Blue Heron Park in Staten Island and Cheesequake State Park in Old Bridge Township, NJ.
Come late winter or early spring, sometimes when there is even still snow on the ground, you will be greeted with the first plant to flower in New York Harbor – skunk cabbage.
Skunk Cabbage is an odd plant that sprouts very early in the year, and creates its own heat, often melting snow around itself as it shoots up a reddish-brown-purplish shell that encloses a small fleshy, finger-like spike with tiny yellow flowers atop. A weird plant that produces a flower before leaves and the flower gives off the smell of rotting flesh.
Whatever you do - don't eat the leaves! Just a few bites of the leaves, which contain crystals of calcium oxalate, and skunk cabbage can cause burning and swelling of the mouth and a choking sensation. Eating more can be fatal, not just to humans but to dogs and cats as well.
If you are a risk-taker, though, you can try eating the roots or the leaves dried. Legend has it early Native American people used the roots to help cure convulsions and toothaches; the root was also used as a poultice for wounds. A fully dried and reconstituted leaf may be used in soups and stews. For me, however, skunk cabbage is a plant best cherished not consumed.
Skunk cabbage is not a true member of the cabbage family. It comes from a group of plants with tropical origins, the Arum family. Jack-in-the-pulpit is also a member of the family. Skunk cabbage gets it name from its large leaves that grow somewhat like a cabbage and from its strong skunk-like odor released when any part of the plant is broken off.
It’s this stinky smell, though that makes skunk cabbage so much fun to study. It’s the rotting flesh smell that attracts early flying bees and small flies as pollinators by moving pollen from males to the waiting stigmata of females. The putrid smell also helps protect the plant from predators that might want to eat it.
The plant also has a built-in furnace to generate it’s own heat so it can bloom early and pollinate early. The plant is thermogenic, meaning it can produce heat. A very rare thing in the plant world.
Skunk cabbage has the unusual ability to generate heat to grow and flower while snow is still on the ground. This creates a toasty warm place to attract early-appearing insect pollinators. Most flying insects normally don’t buzz around when air temperatures are below 65 degrees, but on warm early spring days a few bold bees and flying insects will come out. When temperatures drop the insects can find a warm shelter within skunk cabbage. Pretty smart stuff for a plant.
No doubt, skunk cabbage is a remarkable plant with a stinky name. Yet, that shouldn’t stop you from going out skunk-watching this spring in swampy wetlands. Early spring emerges around New York Harbor not always with daffodils and forsythia, but sometimes with foul and unfriendly smells.