Maybe it’s the name (skunk cabbage), maybe it’s the location (a bog), or maybe it’s the odor (stinky!). Whatever the case, skunk cabbage gets no respect.
Poets may grow faint over the notion, but facts are facts, and the first wildflower to materialize on Ohio’s wintry landscape is the skunk cabbage, not the more romantically named harbinger-of-spring.
Melt to top. With an intriguing ability to generate an intense amount of internal heat, the bog-dwelling skunk cabbage literally melts its way to the top each year to become Ohio’s first spring wildflower.
First appearing in late February or early March, skunk cabbage can now be seen dotting marshy woodland floors.
Emergence. Skunk cabbage first emerges as two pointed stalks, cupping together to form a protective shell around a knob-shaped cluster of tiny cream-colored flowers. It’s the flower growth that generates internal temperatures of up to 70 degrees.
The plant’s leathery shoots – not to be mistaken for leaves – do a great job of insulating the flowers against the blustery weather of early spring.
Roughly five-inches tall, the shoots are a mottled reddish-purple with blotches of yellow and green, giving it the appearance of a speckled Easter egg.
Inside the protective shell, the plant’s smooth and glossy spears are an intense deep red.
In the name. So, why the name “skunk cabbage?”
Just crush a small piece of the plant between your fingers and you’ll quickly understand why its species name is foetidus – that’s Latin for stinking or bad smelling.
Appropriately, the plant has also been called “skunk weed” and “polecat weed.”
Irresistable. Some of spring’s earliest flying insects, however, find skunk cabbage to be simply irresistible.
Attracted by the plant’s vibrant color and stinky odor, honeybees and other insects take advantage of this early season pollen source. The clever honeybee can also be found seeking shelter inside skunk cabbage when outside temperatures dip dangerously low.
Following pollination, several tightly rolled green leaves appear along-side the plant.
In time, they uncurl into broad, lustrous leaves that grow up to 2-3 feet by summer.
Stinky medicine. As with many wild plants, skunk cabbage has been used in a variety of medicinal ways.
American Indians stopped the bleeding of small cuts and scratches by applying the powder of freshly dried skunk cabbage roots to the wound. Coughs and other maladies were treated with a tea made by steeping the plant’s roots.
Overall, though, skunk cabbage is poisonous and should not be ingested.
Where to look. While skunk cabbage is not uncommon in Ohio, it is particular about where it likes to grow.
Look for it in places where groundwater seeps to the surface and along small streams. Also, the farther south you go, the fewer places it is likely to pop up.
Some of the best places to go and see skunk cabbage in Ohio are at Collier State Nature Preserve in Seneca County; Gahanna Woods State Nature Preserve in Franklin County; Zimmerman Prairies State Nature Preserve in Greene County; and West Branch State Park in Portage County.
Visits. As we continue to move through spring, more and more varieties of wildflowers will blanket Ohio’s woodlands and meadows providing many opportunities to get out and enjoy the outdoors.
Here are some other locations you might want to consider visiting:
* Amid the wide range of wildflowers at Lake Katharine State Nature Preserve in Jackson County, you’ll find the pink lady’s slipper, one of Ohio’s wild orchids.
* At Gross Woods State Nature Preserve in Shelby County, you’ll discover spring wonders such as large-flowered trilliums (the state wildflower), wild geranium and several species of violets.
* At Hocking Hills State Park in Hocking County, walk amid the towering cliffs and deep hemlock-shaded gorges as you observe nature’s carpet of wildflowers and sparkling waterfalls.
All of Ohio’s 2,300 species of wildflowers are special, but remember only the skunk cabbage is the true harbinger of spring.
(The author is with Ohio Department of Natural Resources.)
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