Skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, northeastern Asia, eastern Siberia,
northeastern China, Korea, and Japan. It is named for the disagreeable odor that results when
the leaves are torn, an odor it uses to attract its pollinators.
Identification: Found in swamps and wetlands,
skunk cabbage can reach 3' (91 cm) high and 8' (2.4 m) across at its peak. Early
plants have hood-like leaves 4-6" (10-15 cm) high; some leaves are maroon, sometimes mottled
with yellow. This hood is a "spathe," a modified leaf that protects the flowerhead. The flowers
remain enclosed in the spathe, so you have to peek inside to see them. Later in the spring, large, oval leaves, up to 3-4' (91-121 cm) long, grow up from a single point. The leaves of these
plants don't decay in the usual sense, they literally dissolve, disappearing by August.
Edibility: Poisonous You probably weren't
seriously considering eating skunk cabbage, but if you were, don't—it contains
calcium oxalate, which causes a strong
inflammatory reaction in people. Bears tolerate it, but they put up with bee stings too.
From Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History:
In skunk cabbage [calcium oxalate crystals] take two forms: raphides,
which occur in bundles of parallel, needlelike crystals, and druses, which are conglomerates
of several crystals fused around a nucleus and shaped like an irregular, spiky ball. If skunk
cabbage is eaten, the calcium oxalate causes a severe burning sensation in the mouth, throat,
and esophagus and can result in an inability to speak or even in swelling of the throat.