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Environmental Studies

Symplocarpos foetidus (Skunk Cabbage) Araceae

Skunk Cabbage: by Mary Oliver
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving, 
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding, 
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell 
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct! 
But these are the woods you love, 
where the secret name
of every death is life again - a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait 
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

The Skunk Cabbage is rather easy to identify due to its large leaves, and unique Spaith and Spadix. The leaves look to grow straight out of the ground, are shinny, and smell like a Skunk if they are crushed. The Spaith and Spadix are a purple-brown color, and sits below the leaves. 

This species tends to grow near areas where water is in abundance

Physical characteristics 

Leaf: The Skunk Cabbage leaves are very large entire margined leaves with a plastic like appeal, and have a slight crinkle.

Flower | Seeds: The flower is a circular ball about 2 inches, after pollination a reddish brown ball of fruits is formed. Each fruit contains 1 seed. 

Shape: The leaves tend to grow out of a central point, and spread out as they grow.

Root system: The root system is very large and reaches deep into the wet soil. There is no tap root, so the root structure is very spread out. 

Life span: The Skunk cabbage can live up to 20 years, loosing its leaves annually.











Ecological characteristics

Due to the wide range of temperatures the Skunk Cabbage can live to the south as far as North Carolina; and almost as far north as the arctic circle. Although it doesn’t make it farther west than Iowa due to the small amount of rainfall, and flood planes.  

Although the Skunk Cabbage has a rhizome root structure the only way the plant can germinate is through seeds. 

Climate: The Skunk Cabbage can survive in most temperatures as long as there is an abundance of water. It has been said that the skunk Cabbage can live in temperatures near -40 degrees F, and its large leaves will break through ice if it hasn’t melted by blooming time.

Skunk Cabbage Distribution

Importance to the ecosystem

The Skunk Cabbage’s deep root system helps provide stability in very damp areas where most plants would be unable to survive. This helps with erosion and the permeability of the soil.

The very large leaves also provide good food for insects both while the plant is alive, and after the plant has begun to wither. 

Lastly, since many native plants are unable to survive in the wet ecosystems the Skunk Cabbage takes up land that would otherwise be taken over by invasive weeds. 

Relationship with other species

Non-human: Insets like caterpillars eat the leaves and may choose to lay eggs on the plant. Since the flower is on the ground it is easy to access for bugs that don’t have wings. 



Other interesting facts

  • The Skunk Cabbage rhizome root system is so complex it is nearly impossible to dig up, and the roots are so strong they pull the plant further underground each year.

  • The spaith and spadex are formed in prior years and sits under the ground until the next spring comes. 
  • Although the Skunk Cabbage tends to grow in groups, and has such a complex root structure the only way for the plant to spread is through the seeds produced.






Page drafted by Eric Matiasek