Celebrating Skunk Cabbage
Why is it that the first native wildflower to bloom each year in the Northeast gets so little fanfare or attention? Could it be its unappealing name– skunk cabbage? Or the fact you have to search for it in wetlands and bottomland forests or along damp streamsides in late-February and March? Or could it be that it doesn’t really signal the end of winter, able, as it is, to thrive when there is still snow on the ground?
Still, I think there is much to recommend skunk cabbage: it’s mottled deep maroon hood which conceals a pineapple-like flower head; it’s ability to generate its own heat; and, best of all, it’s bright green, tightly-rolled leaves that begin to unfurl in April. And now, having dug up a skunk cabbage to study it more closely, I would add to the list its massive root system, which anchors the plant deep in the ground. What more praiseworthy spring wildflower could there be?
Tips and Techniques– Follow your curiosity. Without it, I would not be out in the woods in February or studying the roots of skunk cabbage or painting many of the other subjects that intrigue me. Find what spark’s your interest and follow it.
What a truly lovely blog post! You have inspired me this morning as I love both plants and botanical paintings. So glad that your post came up on my reader! And I don’t even know this little plant – making it very interesting. Many thanks for brightening my day.
Thanks! Glad to brighten your morning! The range of this plant is limited to parts of the upper midwest and northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the US. It definitely brightens February and March to see it late-winter. Looks like spring is coming along nicely in Ireland. Enjoy!
Hi Jean, I found your blog on this Skunk Cabbage very interesting and your illustration is beautifully done. I love the plants color combination and was amazed at the massive root system that must anchors and protects this plant’s survival. Thank you for your lovely work and sharing it with all of us.
Thanks for writing Claudette. The purple/green combination is really lovely. I’m glad I now know what’s underground, too!
I have to hand it to you Jean. You made this plant look positively lovely. I admit that I know it and have thought it ugly. In fact it was indeed poking it’s head out of the ground quite a while ago when there was snow in the forest and I thought to myself what a trooper it was. Now I will see it differently, thanks to you. Happy Spring!
PS- I actually smelled it before I saw it.
I love your comment Dawn! Consider that I spent several hours with it and the odor wasn’t too bad (until I opened the spathe to study the flower…then I knew my time was limited.) The other thing that you don’t realize is how much of the plant is underground. I could never really tell how this plant was put together; how the spathe was connected to the leaves. I liked seeing all that more clearly. I’m glad you’ll appreciate it differently henceforth. Enjoy Spring!
Such a great post, your words are inspiring, thank you. Michele Quigley
Thanks Michele- I’m always happy to provide a bit of inspiration!
I am often drawn to them as they emerge in the spring. Grouped together as one so often finds them they resemble little hooded people deep in conversation.Now I know the thing is to find one still closed or just be content with working outside. Your watercolor is beautiful and it’s wonderful to see the shoot and roots..
There are a number along a steam near our house where high water eroded the soil, exposing the roots. That’s what first sparked my interest in investigating underground. I’ve typically sketched them outdoors, too, and I like remembering the feel of warm sun in the woods in April.
yes! the warm of the sun! and the peepers and wood frogs starting u, often in full song, even with ice still on the ponds and snow in the shadows of rock and tree….
Beautiful sketch! But doesn’t your east coast skunk cabbage STINK? Ours certainly does here in the Pacific Northwest! I’ve never heard anyone sing its praises here as a “spring flower” or describe it without first mentioning its horrible odor. Your art could do wonders as part of a PR campaign to improve the poor plant’s image out here! 😉
Thank you for all your lovely posts.
East coast species (Symplocarpus foetidus) and west coast species (Lysichiton americanus) differ, Barb, so maybe yours smells more. I didn’t think this was bad, and I spent several hours in close contact with it. I wonder whether some of the odor associated with it comes later in the season from anaerobic bacteria in mucky bog soils in which it grows, and not from the flowers, which are long gone by summer. It is, indeed, a spring flower– and I’m happy to kick off the PR campaign.
Thanks for your reply. Alas, it is when our skunk cabbage is in flower that it smells so strongly and badly. The surrounding bog is almost fragrant by comparison!
Good to know, Barb. I’ve never thought the eastern species was bad…unless you crush the leaves or cut the flowers.
Yes purple green is amazing. I often study nature. I love it! So skunk cabbage huh…does it smell bad?
I think it smells bad only if you crush or cut the leaves or flower. But it does have a reputation for being odorous.
The illustration is stunning – and even calming; that mass of roots makes me wonder if they have healing/medicinal properties.
Like you, I love exploring the outdoors and am always curious to see all details of the natural world. It’s always a joy to see your work.
Thanks much. They were used for a variety of ailments, including breathing problems and joint pain. I’m not sure which parts of the plant were used.
It’s always nice to have a natural pharmacy!
Our first blooming wild plant in the spring. It loves living by our creek in the woods. And, your painting describes well
Does yours have yellow flowers?
Sorry for the late reply…Personal life gets so busy I have hardly done any journaling. Yes, ours do have large yellow blossoms with a tall stem in the center along with a strong unfriendly fragrance.
Personally, I love skunk cabbage!! I like its name, its leaves, the muck it grows in. We used the leaves to fan whoever got to be Cleopatra when I was a kid.
Wow! Fanning Cleopatra! That’s great…and how was the odor when you broke off the leaves?
To tell the truth, I don’t remember the smell at all! I just thought it was fun.
I never thought of using the leaves for fans on an occasional hot day in the Northwest….what a fun imagination!
Well, gosh, thanks!
To find interest and delight in ALL of creation is a gift. You are able to look with eyes of wonder at nature in all forms and find beauty in color and form. Thank you for your encouragement to look beyond our initial response and see the beauty of color and design. What a blessing you are!
Thanks Bernadette. Keep looking!
Although I’ve seen this odd little plant many times in my wandering s I didn’t give much notice to it till now. Not only did I learn something new, but your sketch has showed me that it’s worthy of notice. Beautiful painting! You’ve once again inspired me to draw something new. To take a closer look.
Thanks Erica! I so appreciate your comment. If I’ve inspired you to take a closer look then my painting has done its job.
What an interesting plant! I am amazed with its hardy roots! I’m not sure I have seen Skunk Cabbage in my area, I will have to be on the look out for it in a wetland area. We have seen Buttercups growing in the woods near our home which for us is a signal of Spring. I always enjoy your art, Jean. I recently purchased a couple of books on botanical drawing. I find it such an interesting subject. 🌿 Cheers to exploring nature!
Hi Jill- I like that there are so many interesting ways to explore and sketch/paint nature. You’ve been doing some fascinating color and pattern artwork lately. I enjoy seeing different approaches. Let’s keep it up!
I was surprised when I moved out here to find that the western version of this plant is bright yellow. It’s very pretty, but there’s a lot to say for those mysterious colors of the eastern version, and I like the root tangle. I feel like you have captured the coiled energy of spring that these tough plants have. They are really very powerful.