Seeking Appalachia’s Strangest Flower

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)



Article Published: Mar. 13, 2013 | Modified: Mar. 13, 2013
Seeking Appalachia’s Strangest Flower

Eastern skunk cabbage is both a sign and smell that spring is on the way.

Photo by Charles Pierce, U.S. Forest Service



After searching for weeks, I finally found Appalachia’s strangest wildflower.

It was my dog that led me to the maroon, green and yellow skunk cabbage bloom. Just like the flies that pollinate it, he was drawn to the flower’s putrid rotting meat smell.

What did I do upon finding it? A little dance. What did my dog do? He rolled on top of it and then ate it.

Luckily for him, skunk cabbage grows in colonies, and, after a scolding, he knew to leave the rest of the odd flowers for the flies.

These plants stumped a Dear Naturalist reader this week and rightfully so.

Every year around this time, a bunch of unusual plants grow in our backyard woods. They actually grow up through the snow… seem to actually melt it. It is green and red, but if you open the petals, there is a yellow ball inside. I think it could be related to a Venus Fly Trap. What is this plant? – Bob V., Deep Gap

You are right in your observations, Bob. The eastern skunk cabbage in your backyard does actually melt the snow as it grows. Because of this unique adaptation, it is one of the earliest blooming wildflowers in our mountains.

The plant blooms perennially in colonies near streams in cold regions. The large auburn and green hood-like section is called the “spathe.” The flower is actually the large yellow spherical object inside the spathe.

As the spathe grows up through the snow, it can generate its own heat. The heat is produced when the plant oxidizes starches that it has stored in its rhizome over the winter.

The temperature inside the spathe, where the flower is developing, is self-regulated by the plant. Typically, the temperature inside will be at least 30 degrees warmer than the outside air.

When the spathe is fully grown, it opens to reveal the odiferous flower. Why does it smell so bad? All potential pollinators need to be awakened from their own winter’s rest. Let’s just say the best part of wakin’ up for these flies is not the smell of Folger’s coffee.

Skunk cabbage is also unusual in that the first part of the plant to appear is the bloom. It isn’t until early May that the leafy part of the plant will emerge.

A crushed leaf exudes a skunk-like odor, and ingested leaf juice calls forth a strong inflammatory reaction in the mouth and esophagus of human beings. Few creatures eat the leaves. For this and many other reasons, an individual plant can survive for hundreds of years (as long as the ground where it lives stays moist).

It is not closely related to the Venus Fly Trap. Instead, skunk cabbage is in the Arum family, along with jack-in-the-pulpit and the tropical calla lily.



If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (dearnaturalist@gmail.com) All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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