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Johnston, E- Skunk cabbage

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 6 months ago
                                        Skunk Cabbage:
Symplocarpus foetidus
 Emily Johnston
Photo of Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt.
Picture: Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]
 General Information                                                                                
Skunk Cabbage is a native (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13] ) member of the family Araceae (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown] ).    I choose this plant because I am interested in the different mechanisms plants have evolved to attract pollinators, and skunk cabbage, as discussed below, is native example of using thermogenesis in pollination. It is fairly uncommon within its range and listed as endangered in the state of Tennessee (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]). It does not resprout after being picked and serves as a minor food source for water and terrestrial birds (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]). 
 Habitat and Range
Skunk cabbage grows in wet, swampy or wooded areas or along streams (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]) in Eastern North America (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown])(see amp below for range). The World Wildlife Fund defines its habitat as a “temperate broadleaf and mixed forest ecoregion”, which is characterized by, in addition to a temperate temperatures, “rainfall … broadly distributed throughout the year….Species such as oak (Quercus spp.), beech (Fagus spp.), birch (Betula spp.), and maple (Acer spp.) typify the composition .” (Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests Ecoregions …[updated 2006 July 11]) The plants can often be hard to find because they bloom very early in the spring and are often covered by leaf litter. (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]).   
Distributional Map for Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt.
Map: Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]
 Life Cycle and Growing Pattern
Symplocarpus foetidus
Picture: Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]
Skunk Cabbage is and herbaceous perennial with rhizomatous growth form (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]). The flowers are among the first to come out in spring, appearing between February and April. The leaves appear in the summer after the flowers (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]). The root grows to 12 inches deep (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]). The plant prefers lots water and a shady environment with a pH between 4 and 7. It is hardy to    -33o F . It can be propagated by seed or root cuttings, but grows slowly vegetatively (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]).      
 Flower Structure
Skunk cabbage has a very striking flower structure. Like other members of the family Araceae, the tiny flowers are located on an inflorescence called a spadix (Araceae … [updated 2007 Nov 26] ). The flowers are surrounded by an often purple, green, brown or mottled, modified leaf called a spathe (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]). 
Symplocarpus foetidus
Picture: Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]
 Alternative Respiratory Pathway and Pollination
The Skunk Cabbage’s spadix, like those in many members of the Arum family, uses a respiratory pathway that produces little or no ATP. An enzyme, alternative oxidase, allows electrons to skip the proton pumping steps in the electron transport chain in the mitochondria. The energy is therefore converted into heat instead of ATP in a process known as thermogenesis. In the Arum family thermogenesis is believed to assist in pollination. It raises the temperature in the spadix up 10o C greater then the outside air, helping spread the rancid smelling volatile chemicals in the flowers (Hopkins and Hüner 2004) which attract flies, the main pollinators (Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus… [updated 2005 Nov 13]).  Other species of the Arum family that use thermogenesis include the dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus) (reported to smell like a dead, rotting horse) and the Voodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum)( Araceae … [updated 2007 Nov 26]), which can be viewed at the Ohio University Plant Biology Greenhouse.   
The dried, rehydrated leaves are used as a cooked green and the dried roots may be ground into a “pleasant cocoalike flour.” Both the leaves and the root must be dried completely before eating, as they contain calcium oxalate, which can cause “an intense burning sensation in the mouth.” This chemical is only completely destroyed by drying. (Peterson 1977). The USDA reports that skunk cabbage is nontoxic (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown] ).
 Medicinal Uses
Skunk cabbage was used by a number of Native American tribes as a general antispasmodic, for epileptic seizures, and as a cough suppressant. The powdered root was also used by the Iroquois “as a wash to ‘cure strong smell under your arm’” (Moerman 1998).  



The Habitat and Ecology of Skunk Cabbage
(Symplocarpus feotidus)
            Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus feotidus) grows in the North-Eastern United States. It is found in New England from Maine south to North Carolina, west to Tennessee,   north to Illinois, and west through Iowa and Minnesota. There are no known populations in Kentucky. In Canada, it is found in Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia (Plant Profiles: Symplocarpus foetidus … [updated unknown]). (See map above). According to the World Wildlife Fund, it grows in temperate broadleaf and mixed forest ecoregions (Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests Ecoregions …[updated 2006 July 11]). This ecosystem type has hot and cold seasons, is humid and is characterized by a four layer forest: the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer and the herbaceous layer (Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests …[updated 2008 Jan 4]). Skunk Cabbage, because of its size and herbaceous life cycle (see above), is found in the herbaceous layer. In North America, a number of deciduous and evergreen trees are common in temperate broadleaf and mixed forests, including oaks, beeches, maples, birches, pines, firs and spruces (Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests …[updated 2008 Jan 4]).
            Within these forests, skunk cabbage likes constant moisture and shade. It grows in hardwood swamps (Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin: VI.A. HARDWOOD SWAMPS … [updated 2006 Aug 3] ), tamarack swamps, white pine-maple swamps, and forested seeps (forests with lots of springs) (Natural Communities for Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex W.P.C.Barton … [updated unknown]). At a community ecology level, skunk cabbage is commonly found growing with marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), sedge species (Carex spp.) ( Points of Interest Along Lost Streams: Nordheimer Skunk Cabbage Patch …. [updated unknown]), Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.), and purple fringe orchis (Platanthera psycodes) (Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin: VI.A. HARDWOOD SWAMPS … [updated 2006 Aug 3]).     
            Since skunk cabbage is a wetland species, it is threatened by the destruction and loss of our wetlands. Wetlands are delicate ecosystems that are under pressure from a number of sources:  “chemical contamination, increased nutrient inputs and eutrophication    (accelerated succession from low to high primary productivity rates [which consumes the oxygen in the stream, suffocating other life]), hydrologic modification, and sediment from air and water. Global climate change could affect wetlands through increased air temperature; shifts in precipitation; increased frequency of storms, droughts, and floods; increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration; and sea level rise. All of these impacts could affect species composition and wetland functions.” (Wetland Loss and Degradation ...[updated unknown]).  However, the greatest threat to wetlands is reclamation: the draining and filling of wetlands for other uses, often farming and development. We have lost over half of our wetlands due to reclamation since the Europeans discovered North America (Wetland Loss and Degradation ... [updated unknown]). 
            I think the best way we can protect skunk cabbage is to protect the wetlands where it grows. There are a number of organizations at the national and international level who are currently working for wetland conservation and could always use volunteers. The Sierra Club works to protect wild areas for future generations and has a local chapter (www.sierraclub.org ). Ducks Unlimited works to preserve wetlands for hunting purposes. Distasteful as that is to many people, they do a lot of work with conservation and research and are at the forefront of the wetland protection movement (www.ducks.org ). Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources website also lists a number of Ohio groups involved in wetland conservation. This page can be accessed at http://dnr.state.oh.us/tabis/999/default.aspx
            There are also many changes we can make changes in our personal lives that reduce damage to and make the draining of wetlands less profitable. We don’t need to wait for some fantastic green technology to save us from global warming. We can start reducing our carbon emissions right now with what we have. We can ride the bus to school and around town instead of driving. The city of Athens has a great bus service that will get you anywhere in town. And, if the demand for more bus routes increases, the bus will begin servicing other areas. For more information on times and routes, call 740-592-2727. The greyhound also stops in Athens everyday on its way to Columbus, where you can catch a bus to anywhere in the country (www.greyhound.com). We can decrease the demand for farm land by planting gardens in lawns that otherwise just take up space. Our campus is full of lawns that are not even used for recreation or lounging students. Also, the community gardens in Athens, run by Community Food Initiatives, had unused space last year. They can be contacted at 740-593-5971 or www.communityfoodinitiatives.com .  
            There are many other ways we can reduce our impact on the earth and protect wetlands. Many of the websites listed above and in the reference section are full of ideas to get started.  


Araceae [internet]. [updated 2007 Nov 26]. Wikipedia; [cited 2008 Feb 17]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araceae .

Connecticut Wildflowers: Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus [internet]. [updated 2005 Nov 13]. Connecticut Botanical Society; [cited 2008 Feb 16]. Available from: http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/symplocarpusfoet.html

Hopkins William G. and Norman P. A. Hüner. 2004. Introduction to Plant Physiology, 3rd ed. Ontario (Canada): John Wiley and Sons, Inc. p. 158-159.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland (Oregon): Timber Press. p. 548-549.


Natural Communities for Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex W.P.C.Barton [internet]. [updated unknown]. Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium, University of Wisconsin; [cited 2008 March 2].  Available from http://wisplants.uwsp.edu/scripts/habitats.asp?spCode=SYMFOE

Peterson, Lee Allen. 1977. A field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. Boston (MA): Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 156. 

Plants profile: Symplocarpus foetidus [internet]. [updated unknown]. United States Department of Agriculture; [cited 2008 Feb 16]. Available from: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SYFO .


Points of Interest Along Lost Streams: Nordheimer Skunk Cabbage Patch [internet]. [updated unknown] . Toronto Green Community; [cited 2008 March 2]. Available from http://www.lostrivers.ca/points/Nordheimer_Skunk.htm 

Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests [internet]. [updated 2008 Jan 4]. Wikipedia; [cited 2008 March 2]. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperate_broadleaf_and_mixed_forests .

Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests Ecoregions [internet]. [updated 2006 July 11]. World Wildlife Fund; [cited 2008 Feb 17]. Available from http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/where_we_work/ecoregions/about/habitat_types/selecting_terrestrial_ecoregions/habitat04.cfm .

Wetland Loss and Degradation [internet]. [updated unknown]. Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management; [cited 2008 March 2]. Available from http://www.mass.gov/czm/walossd.htm


Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin: VI.A. HARDWOOD SWAMPS [internet]. [updated 2006 Aug 3]. U.S. Geological Society; [cited 2008 March 2].   Available from http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/plants/mnplant/hard.htm

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