An after Easter portrait – Symplocarpus foetidus

Chocolate eggs hunting and skunk cabbage viewing may sound unusual but it certainly works for some as an Easter tradition.

All nature lovers in North America are familiar with the eastern skunk cabbage (polecat weed) – Symplocarpus foetidus, a true spring harbinger, a curiosity, a reason to go hiking in the woods in early spring, a conversation subject but most of all a warm-blooded plant!

Eastern skunk cabbage is the first plant to appear and flower in the frozen landscape due to its ‘central heating system’. The pointed inflorescences break through the ice and snow as heavily spotted, reddish thick-textured spathes that enclose the sexual parts (spadices).

“As my eye sweeps over the twenty or thirty plants before me, my gaze is brought into a spiraling movement when it tries to rest upon any single specimen. The deep color is warm, the sculpted form alive” Craig Holdrege

The French naturalist Jean Lamarck was the first to report that aroid inflorescences produce heat and lately this metabolic process was called thermogenesis. It was (and still is) quite a fascinating phenomenon and lots of research has been done to explain what’s happening.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Symplocarpus foetidus

Today we know that it is the salicylic acid from the plant which functions as a hormone, initiating the heating process and also the production of odours and unfolding of the spathe. In eastern skunk cabbage, the warmth from the spadix also dissipates foul smelling substances to attract flies, beetles and other pollinating insects, which are rejoicing in the warm environment created inside the spathe.

Spadix temperature is regulated depending on the ambient up to two weeks. Regardless of the near-freezing air temperature, the heat produced by the spadix can raise the temperature of its tissues 15 to 35°C above the surroundings!

Symplocarpus foetidus spadix

Symplocarpus foetidus spadix

There would be lots to be said also about the medicinal and magic uses of skunk cabbage. The one I like most is the ritual performed by the Menominee tribe of North America: they tattooed people recovering from an illness with a decoction of the skunk cabbage roots in the region where the illness had caused pain. This way the illness would not return…

Cultivation: Moist to wet soils in partial shade, great around ponds and streams. Seeds sown in moist compost and plants transplanted young or directly outside. It forms a stout, vertical rhizome and division is difficult. Even in nature, populations increase through germinated seeds, not vegetatively.

2 replies
    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      When they are about to break out through the snow you can feel the warmth, before it warms up outside. They are not that stinky as the name
      implies, many times we stepped on a few buds by mistake (with apologies)and wasn’t bad at all. I will crush a few leaves this year…

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