Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex W.P.C. Barton
Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt.
Spathyema foetida (L.) Raf.
Eastern skunk cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, foetid pothos, meadow cabbage, polecat weed, skunk cabbage, swamp cabbage
Skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, northeastern Asia, eastern Siberia, northeastern China, Korea, and Japan. It is named for the disagreeable odor that results when the leaves are torn, an odor it uses to attract its pollinators.
Identification: Found in swamps and wetlands, skunk cabbage can reach 3' (91 cm) high and 8' (2.4 m) across at its peak. Early plants have hood-like leaves 4-6" (10-15 cm) high; some leaves are maroon, sometimes mottled with yellow. This hood is a “spathe,” a modified leaf that protects the flowerhead. The flowers remain enclosed in the spathe, so you have to peek inside to see them. Later in the spring, large, oval leaves, up to 3-4' (91-121 cm) long, grow up from a single point. The leaves of these plants don’t decay in the usual sense, they literally dissolve, disappearing by August.
Edibility: Poisonous You probably weren’t seriously considering eating skunk cabbage, but if you were, don’t—it contains calcium oxalate, which causes a strong inflammatory reaction in people. Bears tolerate it, but they put up with bee stings too. From Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History:
In skunk cabbage [calcium oxalate crystals] take two forms: raphides, which occur in bundles of parallel, needlelike crystals, and druses, which are conglomerates of several crystals fused around a nucleus and shaped like an irregular, spiky ball. If skunk cabbage is eaten, the calcium oxalate causes a severe burning sensation in the mouth, throat, and esophagus and can result in an inability to speak or even in swelling of the throat.
Symplocarpus foetidus at the Nature Institute
Symplocarpus foetidus on Wikipedia
Symplocarpus foetidus at Illinois Wildflowers
Symplocarpus foetidus on Plants for a Future, a resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants
Symplocarpus foetidus at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Symplocarpus foetidus at Minnesota Wildflowers
Symplocarpus foetidus description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 25 May 2020.