Skunk cabbage


I’m certain that more manicured gardens than mine do not experience the pleasure of having skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing in their damp shade. Many parts of my garden are dry shade where planting is a struggle, but midway along the rear garden’s border is an area where a trickle of a spring surfaces. Here, native mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) and Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) thrive, and in the boggiest spots there are patches of skunk cabbages. Mayapples in early April

The large, plain green leaves of skunk cabbage (below) slightly resemble big leafed hostas before breeders began to run wild creating the marvelous forms we plant in gardens today to keep our neighborhood deer well fed. They are not as ornamental as the plainest of hostas, but the common name of skunk cabbage is derived from the smell when the foliage is broken (or chewed), so deer and other creatures avoid it. This is not reason enough to plant skunk cabbage, but as part of the natural garden it has its unique delights.

Skunk cabbage

In this damp area I have carved out the worst of brambles and saplings so that the lush ferns, mayapples, and skunk cabbages enjoy less competition and are more visible. While I curse the invasive multiflora roses and barberries that scratch and snarl at the garden’s edges, these natives are rich wonders of the landscape of the forest’s floor.Skunk cabbage in late March

In early spring, the unusual flower of the skunk cabbage (above and below) only adds to its intrigue. I recall these odd flowering structures from my childhood. Though I had no apparent interest in gardening at the time, the forest fascinated me, and here were unusual growths emerging from the ground. But, kids pass quickly from one thought to another, so I didn’t give the flowers much thought again until they were growing at the edge of my garden. Now, I visit this unique native garden regularly.skunk_cabbage_lg

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Lovely pictures! I love a bit of skunk cabbage, we have some in our pond. I love the name but haven’t really smelt the stink!

    1. Dave says:

      I haven’t smelled the aroma of skunk cabbage either. I’m not inclined to purposely injure plants just to see how badly they stink. In most cases I’ve found that plants like arums that attract flies to flowers that smell like manure or rotting flesh are not as pungent as reputed, and I suspect that skunk cabbage is also not as bad as it sounds.

  2. tom says:

    Do you have any ornamental shrub/small tree recommendations for flood zones that alternate between dry and extremely wet, as the back of your garden does? I have Irises planted that thrive in a zone like this, but want to add something a little bigger that wont mind wet roots from time to time.

    1. Dave says:

      There are few evergreens suited to wet areas, but there are a good number of shrubs. I’ve planted Aronia, Clethra, Cephalanthus, Red and Yellowtwig dogwoods (Cornus), Fothergilla, Itea, and a few viburnums in damp areas with good success. Some of these prefer the added moisture, and all will tolerate periodic flooding.

  3. Brian says:

    Just yesterday I thought I located a HUGE patch and was disappointed to discover it was only Virginia bluebells. I’ve been looking for years for a patch that was healthy enough to yeild a specimen . I understand the roots big and its a difficult if not impossible to transplant.

    1. Dave says:

      I’ve been tempted to transplant skunk cabbage to other wet spots at the back of the garden, but read that the roots are pulled deeper every year. Growing in muck, I’m not motivated to make too much of a mess. I have transplanted a few small patches of Ostrich ferns that thrive in much drier conditions.

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