The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 19, 2000


Skunk Cabbage

Long before winter has left the ground, the flowers of the skunk cabbage boil up through the frozen woodland and wetland edges. The name warns us not to expect pretty, fragrant blossoms, but the skunk cabbage is special nevertheless: it is among the very first of the season's wildflowers to emerge.

The plant pushes up through snow in late February and early March, creating enough heat as it grows to melt the ice and snow around it. Indeed it's a cozy 65 degrees inside the purple hood where the spike-shaped spadix is covered with greenish-white flowers. To peek at the flowers, gently push down on the top of the hood while opening the lips sideways. Alone inside that little hothouse, the buds can endure raw March winds and blustery spring snows.

Closely related to Jack-in-the Pulpit, this perennial herbaceous plant also belongs to the arum family, but is the only species of its genus.

In odor, skunk cabbages appear to behave more like skunks than cabbages. Bruise a piece of the plant between your fingers (if you dare) or accidentally nudge it with your boot and a malodorous scent wafts up to your nose. The species name is foetidus which means "evil smelling." The tightly rolled cone of green growing alongside the flower will unfurl into heart-shaped leaves and grow as large as two feet by late summer. Later in the year, the fruit is a cluster of bright red berries. The skunk cabbage stands as one of the first signs of spring reassuring us that pussy willows and trilliums are not far behind.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito