Monday, October 27, 2014

100 Species to Know by Sight - #5 Skunk Cabbage

The fifth flower on my list of 100 species that every kid (and adult) in mid-Michigan should be able to identify by sight is the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  My wife thinks it's funny, but this is my favorite wildflower.  Skunk Cabbage is the first flower to bloom every year - its flowers produce so much heat through their metabolic processes that it is capable of melting snow.  Finding the first Skunk Cabbage flower of the year is a more reliable sign of spring than the appearance of the year's first Robin.

Skunk Cabbage flowers are capable of melting snow

The flowers of Skunk Cabbage emerge directly from the ground before the plant's leaves appear.  Their mottled purple and green color and a putrid smell attract carrion flies.  These two factors as well as the flower's location directly on the ground also attract beetles.  I have also seen honey bees pollinating these flowers.

Skunk Cabbage flowers attract flies and beetles with their unpleasant odor

Skunk Cabbage leaves emerge from the ground several weeks after the plant begins flowering.  The leaves grow rabidly and eventually may be up to 3 feet long.  When crushed, the large cabbage-like leaves have a distinctive "skunk" smell giving this species its common name.

Skunk Cabbage leaves - the flowers can be seen at the base of each plant

Skunk Cabbage leaves can grow up to 3 feet long

To find Skunk Cabbage look in swamps, floodplains, and other wet habitats.  This species is found throughout the northeastern part of the United States and Canada.  Mid-Michigan is near the geographic center of its range.

Skunk Cabbage leaves carpet a swamp

In the Fall, after the plant's leaves have died down, look for its large fruit.  The fruit have a fleshy white interior surrounding several large dark seeds.  The fruit is reportedly eaten by bears and possibly raccoons.

Skunk Cabbage fruit
To see the previous species on my list of 100 Species to Know by Sight - please click here.

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