The stout emerging stalks are amazingly thick and leathery to the touch. They unfurl at various rates to form leafy "spathes". I observed incredible variation in the appearance and coloration of these, ranging from light green to heavily striped, to mottled, to almost solid dark red.
Skunk Cabbage is a member of the Araceae family, which includes mostly tropical species. In our area its closest relatives include Golden Club & Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Symplocarpus foetidus is the only species of the genus in North America; Western Skunk Cabbage belongs to a different genus. Symplocarpus also includes some disjunct members in eastern Asia. It has been suggested the Asian and North American species of Symplocarpus have been isolated from one another for over 6,000,000 years (1).
|Symplocarpus foetidus spathe; few plants observed had |
developed this perfect oval shape
Warren County, NC (Feb 2015)
|Skunk Cabbage open spathe revealing enclosed spadix,|
Note the amount of water inside the spathe
According to Seymour & Blaylock (3), "there is no doubt that warming advances development and permits early flowering, but the adaptive value of this is obscure".
I observed several plants with groups of what appeared to be fruit flies buzzing around. Some authors have suggested the plant's thermogenic qualities provide a more attractive site for early season insects like these. Grimaldi & Jaenike (4) found that Skunk Cabbage is "a major breeding site" for one species of fly that "looks enough like Drosophila so that the casual observer might be confused" (5); I certainly wouldn't have known the difference! Whether these insects pollinate the flowers on the spadix is unclear.
|Symplocarpus foetidus "ripe" & flowering spadix|
The condition and maturity of the spadix and presence or absence of flowers was quite variable during my visit. The following series of images shows a bit of this, as does the image above (with the dark brown spadix). However, very few spathes were open enough to easily reveal the contents. Even fewer were flowering, like the examples shown to the left. Several appeared to be just past and others much more so, while at least one spadix (below) seemed to still bedeveloping.
|S. foetidus immature spadix|
|This ripening spadix was |
lying in an open spathe,
like an Easter Egg waiting to be gathered
|Bright yellow stamens exposed, zooming into these seems to show pollen that has |
fallen onto the spadix surface
|Skunk Cabbage habitat (Warren County); Feb 2015|
most plants occurred above the standing water where a faintly developed "Y"
can be seen, just downstream a dense understory of cane develops
|Skunk Cabbage habitat, same site as previous (April 2014)|
(1) Jun Wen, R.K. Jansen, and K. Kilgore. 1996. Evolution of the Eastern Asian and Eastern North American disjunct genus Symplocarpus (Araceae): Insights from chloroplast DNA restriction site data. Biochemical Systematics & Ecology 24: 735-747.
(2) Seymour, R. S. 2004. Dynamics and precision of thermoregulatory responses of eastern Skunk Cabbage. Plant, Cell,& Environment. 27: 1014-1022.
(3) R. S. Seymour & A.J. Blaylock. 1999. Switching off the heater: influence of ambient temperature on thermoregulation by eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Journal of Experimental Botany 50: 1525-1532.
(4) D. Grimaldi & J. Jaenike. 1983. The Diptera Breeding on Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus (Araceae). Journal of the New York Entomological Society 91: 83-89.
(5) H. D. Stalker, 1945; On the Biology and Genetics of Scaptomyza graminum Fallen (Diptera: Drosophilidae).