Symplocarpus foetidus

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Eastern skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbage in early spring
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Alismatales
Family: Araceae
Genus: Symplocarpus
S. foetidus
Binomial name
Symplocarpus foetidus
  • Dracontium foetidum L.
  • Spathyema foetida (L.)Raf.
  • Pothos foetidus (L.) Aiton
  • Ictodes foetidus (L.) Bigelow
  • Pothos putorii Barton
  • Spathyema angusta Raf.
  • Spathyema lanceolata Raf.
  • Spathyema latifolia Raf.
  • Symplocarpus foetidus f. variegatus Otsuka

Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly known as skunk cabbage[2] or eastern skunk cabbage (also swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, or meadow cabbage, foetid pothos or polecat weed), is a low growing plant that grows in wetlands and moist hill slopes of eastern North America. Bruised leaves present an odor reminiscent of skunk.


Specimen with leaves out in spring after the flowers have bloomed

Growing from a rhizome which is often 30 cm (1 ft) thick, the plant produces large leaves, each 40–55 cm (16–22 in) long and 30–40 cm (12–16 in) wide. It flowers early in the spring when only the flowers are visible above the mud. The stems[clarification needed] remain buried below the surface of the soil with the leaves emerging later. The flowers are produced on a 5–10 cm (2–4 in) long spadix contained within a spathe, 10–15 cm (4–6 in) tall and mottled purple in colour.[3]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The eastern skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. It is protected as endangered in Tennessee.[2] Its habitats include stream banks, wet woodlands, and wet areas such as swamps.[3]


Breaking or tearing a leaf produces a pungent but harmless odor, the source of the plant's common name; it is also foul smelling when it blooms. The plant is not poisonous to the touch. The foul odor attracts its pollinators: scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees. The odor in the leaves may also serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging this plant, which grows in soft wetland soils.

Eastern skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 15–35 °C (59–95 °F) above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground,[4] placing it among a small group of thermogenic plants. Even though it flowers while there is still snow and ice on the ground, it is successfully pollinated by early insects that also emerge at this time. Some studies suggest that beyond allowing the plant to grow in icy soil, the heat it produces may help to spread its odor in the air.[4] Carrion-feeding insects that are attracted by the scent may be doubly encouraged to enter the spathe because it is warmer than the surrounding air, fueling pollination.[5][6]

Eastern skunk cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.[citation needed]

Some blowflies, such as Calliphora vomitoria are known pollinators of skunk cabbage.


In the 19th century the U.S. Pharmacopoeia listed eastern skunk cabbage as the drug "dracontium".[citation needed] It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy.[citation needed] In North America and Europe, skunk cabbage is occasionally cultivated in water gardens.[7] Skunk cabbage was used extensively as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman by various tribes of Native Americans.[8] The thoroughly dried young leaves are quite good reconstituted in soups or stews. The thoroughly dried rootstocks can be made into a pleasant cocoa-like flour.

Springtime skunk cabbage growing in a stream bed at the Trexler Nature Preserve in Pennsylvania.
Plants growing in a stream bed at the Trexler Nature Preserve in Pennsylvania


Skunk cabbage often contains calcium oxalate crystals, and therefore the plant is considered to have medium toxicity to humans. The toxicity may be removed through careful preparation.[9][failed verification]


See also[edit]

  • Lysichiton americanus (western skunk cabbage): also known for producing a foul smell, and often confused with eastern skunk cabbage
  • Lysichiton camtschatcensis (Asian skunk cabbage): from north-east Asia, but not known for producing a foul smell


  1. ^ Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
  2. ^ a b USDA PLANTS Database: S. foetidus
  3. ^ a b "Symplocarpus foetidus - Plant Finder". Retrieved 2022-02-16.
  4. ^ a b Thorington, Katherine K. (April 1999). "Pollination and Fruiting Success in the Eastern Skunk Cabbage". The Journal of Biospheric Science. 1 (1).
  5. ^ Marinelli, Janet (2007). "Backyard Habitat: Turning Up the Heat on Your Property". National Wildlife Magazine. Vol. 45, no. 1 Dec/Jan. p. 14. Archived from the original on February 9, 2007. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  6. ^ Rice, Graham (2012). "The flowering of Symplocarpus". The Plantsman. No. March. pp. 54–57. Archived from the original on 20 April 2015.
  7. ^ Flora of North America: S. foetidus
  8. ^ Dr. Moerman's Native American Ethnobotanical Database: S. foetidus
  9. ^ Symplocarpus foetidus

External links[edit]