Eastern Skunk Cabbage Inflorescence

Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in bloom at Bennett’s Terraqueous Garden (Peoria County, IL)

Many thanks to Casey Galvin who turned me on to the closest places to find and photograph a plant species that had been a target of mine for some time now. Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a fascinating plant that is typically found in eastern North America and the upper midwest. The nearest populations to St. Louis that I am aware of are near Peoria, Illinois, which is about a three hour drive from my front door.

These are one of several early blooming plants that start the spring botanical season. These members of the Araceae family, known as the aroids, bloom from February through April. Like several plants in this family, this species produces odors reminiscent of rotting meet in order to attract pollinators that are predominantly dipterans (flies), hymenopterans (bees) and other, more terrestrial arthropods. I did not find the odor too overpowering and I also thought I picked up a slightly sweet, syrupy smell.

Eastern skunk cabbage (S. foetidus) in its seep-spring habitat at Miller-Anderson Woods Nature Preserve (Bureau/Putnam counties, IL)

Another remarkable aspect to this species pollination biology is that the spadex and surrounding tissues are thermogenic – meaning they produce their own heat. This thermogenesis, produced via enzymatic reactions not too dissimilar to the reactions that occur in mammals, may serve to assist the inflorescence and leaves of the plant to break through frozen grounds. It also likely serves as to further the ploy that the plant is a rotting carcass, hopefully attracting flies and other insects interested in such things.

A honeybee (Apis mellifera) visiting the inflorescence of an eastern skunk cabbage (S. foetidus)

Other than a few very small flies and a couple of small native bees, the only pollinator I found during my visit was the honey bee. These were quite abundant.

Spathe and associated carpels of eastern skunk cabbage (S. foetidus)

To show the moisture associated with the seep habitat I was in, here is a skunk cabbage spathe surrounded by snakeskin liverwort (Conocephalum salebrosum).

That’s all I have for now. Most of the information in this post and much more can be found in the following source:

Thorington, Katherine K. Pollination and Fruiting Success in the Eastern Skunk Cabbage. The Journal of Biospheric Science, vol. 1 no. 1, April 1999 http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/mmcmenam/journal.html

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