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Skunk Cabbage: Strange and Stinky

Something stinks ... and it's this plant.

Photo courtesy of Phil Pursley

March is an odd, in-between month. One minute there’s a blizzard outside. Then the next you see sprouts of green poking through the snow. One of these early signs of spring is a weird plant called the skunk cabbage. Very fitting for March!

Skunk cabbage has bright green leaves with a flower that looks a little like a space pod and is red and green in color. Look for this plant near streams and other shallow waters. This is a plant that likes to get its “feet” (roots) wet. In fact, it’s a great sign of a healthy waterway.

One smelly plant

Bet you can guess why it’s called skunk cabbage … all you have to do is take a big whiff to understand. It’s especially smelly when picked. If you didn’t know any better, you would swear a skunk was lurking around the corner! Just like skunks, this early bloomer relies on the smelly mineral sulfur to create a foul odor. Have you ever turned on the tap and the water smelled like rotten eggs? The culprit is sulfur dissolved in your water.

Why would a plant want to smell stinky? Are you going to eat something that makes you gag? Neither are deer or rabbits. Even if they get past the smell, skunk cabbage tastes bitter. Nature is full of creative ways to protect plants against predators.

But it may surprise you to learn that some helpful animals find that stinky smell alluring. We need decomposers like beetles and flies that eat decaying meat. Without them, we’d be wading around in dead animals everywhere! Skunk cabbage smells bad to you and me, but to beetles, the odor smells of rotten flesh. Plus, the flower looks a little like decomposing meat. That is a yummy dinner to these insects! Along the way, beetles and flies pollinate skunk cabbage. What a great relationship.

(P.S. Don’t eat this plant. It might have cabbage in the name, but it’s not a great lunch option. Skunk cabbage is poisonous to most mammals, including us.)

Plant superpower: Skunk cabbage can melt snow!

One of the coolest tricks up this plant’s sleeve is the fact that it can actually make its own warmth. Skunk cabbage is one of the earliest blooming flowers in Will County, popping up as early as late winter. So instead of focusing just on growing, it has a special enzyme that allows it to heat up and melt the snow and ice around it.

When you walk through the woods this time of year, keep an eye out for circular patches of melted snow. Look closely because you just might see a skunk cabbage flower poking through!


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