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Skunk Cabbage: The Smell of Spring

After a long gray Indiana winter, it’s a real joy to smell skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), one of Indiana’s native, fascinating flowers. The name says it all—it does not smell like roses! But seeing and smelling skunk cabbage is a sure-fire, sweet sign that spring weather is near.

Kankakee Sands land steward Olivia Schouten was tromping through Nature Conservancy-owned land adjacent to Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area when she stumbled upon a patch of nearly 500 skunk cabbage plants growing in the wet woods.

Skunk Cabbage blooming | Photo credit: A. Nyberg

Skunk Cabbage | Photo credit: A. Nyberg

What a surprising and fragrant find! For a flower that smells so badly to our human noses, skunk cabbage ranks high on the conservation scale and is considered a “fancy plant,” indicative of a high-quality natural area.

Skunk cabbage is one of Indiana’s earliest flowering native plants, blooming from February through the first part of May. Once the weather begins to warm, it nearly jumps out of the ground. Skunk cabbage grows so quickly that it generates enough heat to melt the snow around it!

It has a unique growth pattern – sending up its flower before the leaves. The flowering structure is comprised of many tiny four-petaled yellow flowers that cover the surface of a globular stalk. This stalk sits right at ground level and is cloaked in a maroon speckled, thick, and fleshy four-inch-tall hoodlike bract that surrounds the flower.

Skunk cabbage flowers

Skunk Cabbage Close-up | Photo credit: Olivia Schouten

Only after the skunk cabbage flowers begin to senesce, or die back, do the cabbage-like leaves emerge from the soil. These bright green, eight-inch wide, egg-shaped leaves are on long one-foot stalks and emit a cabbage-like smell when crushed.

Flies and gnats are the primary pollinators of skunk cabbage, lured not only by the smell but by the warmth of the flower amidst the surrounding cold.

Skunk cabbage is not the only Indiana flower to rely on flies for pollination. Jack-in-the-pulpit, carrion flower, and pawpaws are also fly-pollinated. They all have the following characteristics in common: a flower that is maroon or dark in color; a light flecking or mottling to the flower structure; and a putrid odor that smells of rotting meat, dung, sap, or blood.

In addition to Kankakee Sands, there are many other locations across Indiana and beyond to look for skunk cabbage. Try looking in such enchanting places as wet woods, seeps, bogs, fens, and swamps where there is shade and moist ground. Skunk cabbage can be found from Ontario and Quebec, southward to Tennessee and North Carolina.

Thursday, April 22nd is Earth Day. In honor of our planet Earth, head outside to see and smell the natural world around you. There is so much diversity in our natural world for us to experience and appreciate… the good smelling things and the not-so-good smelling things. It’s all worth smelling, especially the skunk cabbage!


The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.