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Skunk Cabbage, First Illinois Native Wildflower, Blooms This Month

Feb 29, 2024 ● By Sheryl DeVore
A skunk cabbage spathe bursts through the forest floor.

A skunk cabbage spathe bursts through the forest floor. Photo by Rob Kanter.

One of the earliest signs of spring in northern Illinois is a smelly, unusual-looking plant called skunk cabbage. By early March, this plant’s maroon-colored hood, called a spathe, is already peering several inches above the icy, frozen ground in wetland areas. Hidden inside the spathe is a spiked, knob-like structure, called a spadix, upon which tiny flowers are already blooming and attracting native flies, bees and gnats.

“Skunk cabbage is the actual first native spring wildflower to bloom in this region,” says Kim Elsenbroek, land conservation specialist for the Land Conservancy of McHenry County.

Skunk cabbage spathes burst through frozen ground in winter. Photo by Rob Kanter.

“It’s exciting to find,” she relays. “Winter can seem so long. But in the depths of snow and winter, you can go out and see a sign that spring is coming by finding a colony of skunk cabbage.” Both its common name and Latin name—Symplocarpus foetidus—refer to the pungent odor it emits, which has been likened to the smell of a cross between skunk, garlic, onions and carrion. 

It also has a special power most other plants do not possess. “It has the ability to produce its own heat,” Elsenbroek says. “It literally melts the snow around it.” Research has shown that the skunk cabbage flowers inside the spadix can remain an average of 36 degrees F above the outside air temperature for 12 to 14 days. The odor attracts spring’s earliest emerging native flies, bees and gnats to enter into the hood, where they can find warmth and some nourishment from the flowers. Mostly these insects help pollinate the skunk cabbage. Spiders hang around the skunk cabbage, too, waiting for the flies to arrive.

This unique plant is most common in northeastern Illinois and uncommon or absent farther south. Botanists think it migrated to this region after the last Ice Age and now grows in wet woods and thickets, as well as in seeps, springs and bogs. Known as a conservative plant species, it won’t grow in just any wet spot, but can be easily found by the public in plenty of Chicago region preserves with the right habitat.

Pam Otto, outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District, begins searching for skunk cabbage in late February at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, in St. Charles. “It’s a great place because some of the plants are right by a wooden overlook, so if it’s mushy out you can view them without getting muddy,” she says. “Thanks to the extensive restoration going on there, the skunk cabbage population has expanded greatly and can now be viewed in several other spots as well,” she adds.

Otto has also worked at Red Oak Nature Center, in North Aurora, where a skunk cabbage colony grows near the northernmost trail on the property in a low area of calcareous seeps. “Skunk cabbage grows in springs and seeps where groundwater is percolating up through the soil,” she explains.

Each year is different when discovering the season’s first skunk cabbage patch. “In 2022, for example, it took a few trips before we were finally rewarded with maroon spathes, and that was on March 15,” Otto recalls.

“Looking for skunk cabbage is kind of like looking for morels: It can take a few minutes for your eyes to pick out the shapes and colors, but once you’ve adjusted you can spot them fairly quickly,” she says, adding the spathe’s shape reminds her of a gnome with a pointed cap.

Once seeing the spathe, closer inspection shows that hidden inside is the spike upon which the tiny yellow flowers bloom. Humans can smell the somewhat offensive odor by leaning closer toward the plant. Carefully placing a finger inside the hood might produce a surprised insect. “No part of skunk cabbage is edible, and those who try may experience a stinging sensation on their tongues,” Elsenbroek notes.

In May, skunk cabbage appears as large hosta-like leaves in wet areas. Photo by Pam Otto.

While searching for skunk cabbage, one may find the tiny emerging leaves of marsh marigold, with whom it shares its habitat, suggests Matt Candeis, author of Flora: Inside the Secret World of Plants. Candeis writes a blog and tapes a podcast on his website, In Defense of Plants.

As spring unfolds into April, the marsh marigolds grow and bloom a golden yellow in wetlands alongside the skunk cabbage. At the same time, the skunk cabbage’s odor has gone, the flowers have shriveled and kelly-green leaves are hiding the skunk cabbage’s spathe and spadix.

The leaves, which grow to about knee-high, resemble the large outer leaves of cabbage, hence the name skunk cabbage. Otto says the leaves remind her of large-leaved hostas.

“Hostas would be out of place in a natural area, but searching for what look like extra-large hostas in the woods in late spring and summer might help people know what to look for,” she suggests.

In autumn, skunk cabbage seed heads have formed and look like tiny pineapples. After that, Elsenbroek says, “The plants fall apart and break into individual seeds; it’s really cool to see.”

“The best thing about this plant is that there are multiple versions,” she continues. “You can see it in various stages nearly throughout the year. It’s a grounding experience to see it year after year, knowing you can see the same consistent patterns.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at

The blooms of the skunk cabbage are tiny flowers tucked inside the spathe. Photo by Rob Kanter.


Where to Find Skunk Cabbage

Boger Bog Conservation Area, in Bull Valley, is a particularly good place to search for skunk cabbage in late winter because the plants grow in a wet area along a boardwalk near the entrance.

Check the wet areas, river backwaters, streams and seeps in the following preserves for the emerging maroon hoods of the skunk cabbage:

Black Partridge Woods, Lemont

Bluff Spring Fen, Elgin

Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area, Riverwoods

Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles

Glenwood Park Forest Preserve, Batavia

Pilcher Park Nature Center, Joliet

Red Oak Nature Center, North Aurora

Richard Young Forest Preserve, Yorkville

Sterne’s Woods Park, Crystal Lake