you hear the name, skunk cabbage, you instinctively
wrinkle your nose, thinking it smells bad.
so right. This first flowering plant of spring doesn’t
exactly smell good.
flowers of skunk cabbage have no colorful petals to
attract pollinating insects," says Helen Hamilton,
of the native plant that flowers in winter. Hamilton is
author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s
Coastal Plain "Instead, they emit an odor similar
to decomposing flesh which attracts the first insects of
the year, usually carrion and dung flies, but also
beetles, bees and mosquitoes."
cabbage, or Symplocarpus foetidus, produces a
purple-brown and green mottled hood, which is a modified
leaf called the spathe, two to five inches long,
according to Hamilton. Inside is a nearly round flower
head, the spadix, with many small, tightly packed
‘bloom’ when stamens emerge above the four tiny
sepals," she says.
the pollen is released, the stamens wither, and a style
grows out of the middle of each flower to be pollinated
by insects with pollen from other flower heads."
plant’s interesting behavior doesn’t stop there.
Skunk cabbage is considered a "warm-blooded"
plant because its spathe produces enough heat to melt
surrounding snow and ice and to volatize the odor,
according to Hamilton and Dr. Gustav Hall, professor
emeritus at the College of William and Mary.
Carbohydrates stored in the rhizomes are metabolized,
raising the temperature around the flowers; the warmth
remains for two weeks while flowers are pollinated.
the spathe fades, green leaves unfold in a broad spiral
from the base of the plant; when crushed, the leaves
smell as bad as the flowers, according to Hamilton
Without much supportive tissues, the leaves and stems
begin to decompose on the plant in summer and produce
very little leaf litter by fall.
in swamps and moist low ground, skunk cabbage is widely
distributed in Virginia, according to Hall. Its range
extends from Quebec and Nova Scotia to North Carolina
and west to Minnesota and Iowa.
other members of the Arum family, somewhat similar to
skunk cabbage, are common in the Coastal Plain,
including Jack-in-the-pulpit (Ariseama triphyllum), with
three-parted leaves, and arrow arum or Tuckahoe (Peltandra
virginica), with arrowhead-shaped leaves and a leaf-like
spathe with a club-shaped spadix, according to Hall. The
leaves of golden club (Orontium aquaticum) are
elliptical, the spathe obscure and the spadix and its
flower bright yellow, he adds.
flies are members of the Calliphoridae, a family of
insects with more than 1,100 known species that are
commonly known as blow flies, green bottles or blue
bottles, according to Hamilton. The name "blow
fly" refers to the swollen condition of meat that
is being eaten by larvae.
mistaken for house flies, blow flies are larger with
green or blue metallic bodies. In North America there
are 80 species of blow flies. If you see them near or in
your house, it means they found a beneficial place to
lay eggs — garbage, compost piles or a dead animal,
like a mouse in a trap, squirrel in the chimney, a bird
in the attic, etc. To control them, remove the decaying
flies are attracted to the rotting flesh odor produced
by skunk cabbage flowers. While they gather nectar, they
collect pollen on their hairy bodies and that pollen is
deposited on the next flower they visit, according to
Hamilton. Adult blow flies feed on flower nectar, plant
sap, and other sugary substances, but their life cycle
is completed on animal carcasses. Female blow flies lay
their eggs on rotting meat, and maggots hatch within a
few days, feeding on decaying tissues. Theses larvae
then burrow into the soil and pupate, emerging later as