Eastern Skunk Cabbage
Today Peter Collinson wrote to John Bartram after receiving Skunk Weed (Symplocarpus foetidus).
My good friend, John Bartram:
I am very sensible of the great pains and many toilsome steps [you took] to collect so many rare plants scattered at a distance. I shall not soon forget it;
...in some measure to show my gratitude… I have sent thee a small token: a calico gown for thy wife and some odd little things that may be of use amongst the children and family. They come in a box of books… with …. waste paper which will serve to wrap up seeds, etc
[You cannot believe] how well the little case of plants survived the [journey], being put under the captain's bed, and not [exposed to any] light [until I received them].
The warmth of the ship [caused] the Skunk-weed to put forth two fine blossoms - very beautiful - it is of the Arum genus.
As I hope to make a present of part of the seeds, to a very curious person, Lord Petre, I hope to procure thee some present for thy trouble of collecting.
I am thy very sincere friend, P. Collinson.
Skunk Weed was one of Bartram’s favorite flowers. It is also known as Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), and it’s a low growing wetland or marsh plant from eastern North America. The bruised leaves of Skunk Weed release a fragrance reminiscent of Skunk. The botanist William Niering wrote about the odor of Skunk Cabbage in the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers:
"It's strong, and fetid odor resembles decaying flesh."
Skunk Cabbages are thermogenic, meaning they have the ability to generate temperatures up to 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) above the surrounding air temp so that it thaws the frozen ground and snow as it grows in the early spring.
Thanks to its ability to thermoregulate, Skunk Cabbage emerges out of the earth and looks like a little teepee of leaves. Inside that teepee, the Skunk Cabbage is warm and working on sending up a bloom. Once it does - on a 42-degree day - you can reach under the hood of a Skunk Cabbage flower, and the spadix will feel warm to the touch.
As Collinson mentioned in his letter, the Skunk Cabbage is a member of the Arum family, which makes it a cousin to Jack-in-the-pulpit.
In the Pacific Northwest, Skunk Cabbage leaves are still called "Indian wax paper," because the leaves were used to line baskets. And, the leaves were used in steaming pits and in food preservation.
In the great Japanese bogs of Hokkaido, 10,000 visitors a day stop to see the emerging Skunk Cabbage in bloom. The visit is a traditional celebration of spring.