Friday, April 19, 2024

NOTES FROM THE FALLEN TREE: Despite its Horrid Smell, Skunk Cabbage is Pretty and Wildlife’s Friend but Humans Should NOT Eat it Raw!

An early harbinger of spring, this plant provides a warm home for many animals and insects. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.
It can be gorgeous, but human consumption is a no-no. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

If you are wandering through a wetland, you will most likely smell this plant before you see it this time of year. The appropriately named skunk cabbage plant smells kind of stinky. 

There is a purpose for the odor it gives off as it attracts flies that are drawn to “carrion” or dead animals. The flies then help to pollinate the purple/yellow flower that comes up before the large cabbage leaves. The smell also deters herbivores from consuming them. 

Young plant with beautiful purple/yellow flowers. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

The flower grows so fast that it will produce its own heat through a process called thermogenesis. If there is snow on the ground, it will melt the snow around it. The cup flower that encases the spathe, or bract, can be as warm as 70 F.

It can make a nice, warm, early home for small birds. Spiders will sometimes create their webs on the hood of the flower to try and catch the flies that are lured in by the smell. 

Waiting for flies, this skunk cabbage will work as a laxative for bears exiting hibernation. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

This is also a favorite first flower of black bears. Black bears will den up in the winter months if the weather conditions are harsh, making food scarce. They will create an anal plug that prevents them from defecating in their dens. When they do emerge, they search wetlands for skunk cabbage which has a laxative effect on the bears. 

People can only consume skunk cabbage as long as they have boiled the leaves in water and changed the water out multiple times or dried the plant considerably. 

Consuming it raw can cause gastrointestinal issues due to the calcium oxylate crystals in the plant, making it feel as though bees are stinging the inside of your mouth and stomach.

I have always cautioned against consumption of this plant simply because it can cause a 200– to 300-pound bear to go to the bathroom.

I don’t want to see what it will do to me!

Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist
Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist

Jennifer has a Masters in Parks and Resource Management from Slippery Rock University. She worked as a Park Naturalist for Hunterdon County Park System from 2003-2006 and then at the NJSOC full-time from 2006 - 2020, starting as the Program Coordinator and evolving to an Environmental Educator. Jen is a New Jersey native and has lived in Warren County with her family since 2004. She is excited to be offering programs to this community she has grown to love.