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Symplocarpus foetidus (Skunk cabbage)
Vick, Albert F. W.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex W.P.C. Barton

Skunk Cabbage, Skunk-cabbage

Araceae (Arum Family)

Synonym(s): Spathyema foetida


USDA Native Status: L48 (N), CAN (N)

Very early in spring, the greenish-yellow spadix of this plant appears, enclosed by a reddish-brown spathe that is open at one side. As the flowers on the spadix wilt, green leaves unfold. These leaves become quite large with conspicuous venation giving a "quilted" appearance. The plant becomes 1-3 ft. tall. Flower appears before leaves. Through a chemical process, flower can heat itself to about 15 degrees Celcius. This allows it to burn its way through snow cover. Sometimes called first flower of spring. Emerging from moist earth in early spring, a large brownish-purple and green, mottled, shell-like spathe enclosing a knob-like spadix covered with tiny flowers. By late spring a tight roll of fresh green leaves beside the spathe unfolds to form huge, dark green, cabbagy leaves that may carpet an area.

This distinctive plant of marshy woods sprouts so early in spring that the heat of cellular respiration resulting from its rapid growth actually melts snow or ice around it. Its strong fetid odor, especially when the plant is bruised, resembles decaying flesh and lures insects that pollinate it.


From the Image Gallery

38 photo(s) available in the Image Gallery

Plant Characteristics

Duration: Perennial
Habit: Herb
Fruit Type: Berry
Size Notes: Up to about 5 feet tall.

Bloom Information

Bloom Color: Yellow , Green , Purple , Brown
Bloom Time: Feb , Mar , Apr , May


USA: CT , DC , DE , IA , IL , IN , MA , MD , ME , MI , MN , NC , NH , NJ , NY , OH , PA , RI , TN , VA , VT , WI , WV
Canada: NB , NS , ON , QC
Native Distribution: N.S. to GA, w. to MN & IA
Native Habitat: Swamps & muddy ground

Growing Conditions

Water Use: High
Light Requirement: Shade
Soil Moisture: Wet
CaCO3 Tolerance: Low
Soil Description: Damp, humus-rich soil.
Conditions Comments: Plant the skunk cabbage where you want it to stay, since a full-grown plant will have a bushel of soil adhering to its roots and is next to impossible to move. The bruised leaves have a foul odor which gives the skunk cabbage its name. Otherwise the plant has no odor.


Use Food: EDIBLE PARTS: Young, uncurled leaves and roots. Collect the bright green, unfurled leaves in the very early spring.

FOOD PREPARATION: Soak young shoots and roots in warm water to remove dirt and debris. Do not use dish detergent or any type of sanitizer. Carefully handle leaves after collecting. Bruised leaves will give off an unpleasant smell. The smell disappears after cooking. Cook for 20 minutes, change the water at least twice and replace with fresh, boiling salted water. Serve like greens. Roots are very bitter and burning in their raw state. Peel, cut into small pieces, roast in an oven for at least one hour and grind in a flour or coffee grinder until quite fine. Add to bread dough or muffin batter. (Poisonous Plants of N.C.)
Warning: POISONOUS PARTS: All parts except uncurled leaves and roots. Toxic only if eaten in large quantities. Symptoms include burning and swelling of lips, tongue, and throat; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. Toxic Principle: Calcium oxalate crystals and possibly others.
Conspicuous Flowers: yes
Attracts: Birds


Description: Sow seeds upon collection in a peaty soil kept constantly moist. Seedlings require considerable time to mature. To increase by division, dig around the dormant plant and remove it with as much of the deep-penetrating, offensive-smelling rhizome as possi
Seed Collection: Skunk cabbage requires the whole of the growing season to mature its seeds. The fruiting spadix darkens and become spongy as it develops. In early fall, when the seeds are ripe, the spadix is often found on the ground at the base of the leaves. Remove seeds from spadix. Seeds can not be stored.
Commercially Avail: yes

Mr. Smarty Plants says

Skunk cabbage for Houston TX
September 19, 2009
Can you find skunk cabbage in the Houston, Texas area?
view the full question and answer

National Wetland Indicator Status

This information is derived from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Wetland Plant List, Version 3.1 (Lichvar, R.W. 2013. The National Wetland Plant List: 2013 wetland ratings. Phytoneuron 2013-49: 1-241). Click here for map of regions.

From the National Organizations Directory

According to the species list provided by Affiliate Organizations, this plant is on display at the following locations:

Mt. Cuba Center - Hockessin, DE

Web Reference

Webref 38 - Flora of North America (2019) Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.
Webref 23 - Southwest Environmental Information Network (2009) SEINet - Arizona Chapter

From the Archive

Wildflower Newsletter 1989 VOL. 6, NO.1 - Native Plants Facts, Winter Botany, Poster for Schoolchildren, Inside Herbaria
Wildflower Newsletter 1994 VOL. 11, NO.6 - Wildflower Center Featured Non-Profit in Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, Dana Leav...

Additional resources

USDA: Find Symplocarpus foetidus in USDA Plants
FNA: Find Symplocarpus foetidus in the Flora of North America (if available)
Google: Search Google for Symplocarpus foetidus


Record Modified: 2023-02-28
Research By: TWC Staff

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