ARUM FAMILY - Araceae: Skunk or Swamp Cabbage

Symplocarpus foetidus

Flowers--Minute, perfect, foetid; many scattered over a thick, rounded, fleshy spadix, and hidden within a swollen, shell-shaped, purplish-brown to greenish-yellow, usually mottled, spathe, close to the ground, that appears before the leaves. Spadix much enlarged and spongy in fruit, the bulb-like berries imbedded in its surface. Leaves: In large crowns like cabbages, broadly ovate, often 1 ft. across, strongly nerved, their petioles with deep grooves, malodorous.

Preferred Habitat--Swamps, wet ground.

Flowering Season--February-April.

Distribution--Nova Scotia to Florida, and westward to Minnesota and Iowa.

This despised relative of the stately calla lily proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter, being the first bold adventurer above ground. When the lovely hepatica, the first flower worthy the name to appear, is still wrapped in her fuzzy furs, the skunk cabbage's dark, incurved horn shelters within its hollow, tiny, malodorous florets. Why is the entire plant so foetid that one flees the neighborhood, pervaded as it is with an odor that combines a suspicion of skunk, putrid meat, and garlic? After investigating the Carrion-flower and the Purple Trillium, among others, we learned that certain flies delight in foul odors loathsome to higher organisms; that plants dependent on these pollen carriers woo them from long distances with a stench, and in addition sometimes try to charm them with color resembling the sort of meat it is their special mission, with the help of beetles and other scavengers of Nature, to remove from the face of the earth. In such marshy ground as the Skunk Cabbage lives in, many small flies and gnats live in embryo under the fallen leaves during the winter. But even before they are warmed into active life, the hive-bees, natives of Europe, and with habits not perfectly adapted as yet to our flora, are out after pollen.

After the flowering time come the vivid green crowns of leaves that at least please the eye. Lizards make their home beneath them, and many a yellowthroat, taking advantage of the plant's foul odor, gladly puts up with it herself and builds her nest in the hollow of the cabbage as a protection for her eggs and young from four-footed enemies. Cattle let the plant alone because of the stinging acrid juices secreted by it, although such tender, fresh, bright foliage must be especially tempting, like the hellebore's, after a dry winter diet. Sometimes tiny insects are found drowned in the wells of rain water that accumulate at the base of the grooved leafstalks.