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The First Sign Of Spring: The Skunk Cabbage Is Blooming

The spadix of a Skunk Cabbage poking through the bank of a creek in Glen Helen. The plant needs wet soil to thrive.
Chris Welter
The spadix of a skunk cabbage poking through the bank of a creek in Glen Helen. The plant needs wet soil to thrive.

The Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) produces its own heat with the energy stored in its deep roots. That’s why they’re the first wildflower to bloom each spring in Ohio.

One native Ohio wildflower has already started to bloom. The skunk cabbage is a unique plant. It is thermogenic, which means it produces its own heat. The flower heats itself through the energy stored in its deep roots to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which can then melt the cold, hard soil — even if there is ice and snow around it. The flower starts to peek through the surface in early February.

On a cold, snowy February afternoon at Glen Helen Nature Preserve in Yellow Springs, naturalist and Glen Helen volunteer coordinator Patrick Dwyer said that by blooming so early the skunk cabbage is getting ahead of the game.

"They're the only plant out here blooming right now," Dwyer said. "So they've got all the sunlight they need."

Dwyer is leading the first wildflower search of the year along a creek between the ridges of the preserve. He said the skunk cabbage tends to grow in clumps in areas that stay wet year round.

“You've gone through December, you've gone through January. Gray, overcast, cold, not much going on. Then, first part of February, you've got new growth," he said. "When I see it, I know spring is coming. Don’t worry about the groundhog, look at the skunk cabbage.”

And the reason it’s named after a skunk? It stinks. It is not like the rotting egg smell of skunk spray. It smells more like decaying flesh. But there is a reason for the stench. The putrid smell attracts the insects that help pollinate the cabbage.

A piece of skunk cabbage found along the bank of a creek in Glen Helen. The smell is putrid.
Chris Welter
A piece of a skunk cabbage spadix found along a creek bank at Glen Helen. The smell is putrid.

Dwyer said that confused scavengers like Turkey Vultures will sometimes smell the cabbage and swoop toward the surface, only to be surprised when there is no dead animal. In fact, the skunk cabbage is not eaten by the wildlife in the Glen, Dwyer said. Although some bear and deer species are known to partake during the early spring. Consumed raw, It is poisonous to humans, but it can be used medicinally if the calcium oxalate is boiled out of it.

Dwyer said the next native wildflower to keep an eye out for is Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale).

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.