The Little Known Secret of Skunk Cabbage

Eastern Skunk Cabbage: A Heater For Bees!

by Anita Deeley at BeverlyBees.com

A native plant that creates its own heat, Eastern Skunk Cabbage provides pollen, shelter and warmth for foraging bees.

Blooms: Feb-April   Bee Forage: Pollen  Pollen Color: Light Yellow

Skunk Cabbage (3) by Nicholas A. Tonelli
The hard shell spathe encases the flower providing shelter for foraging bees.
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus Foetidus)  is a herbacceous perennial that flowers in late winter and early spring. Blooms occur anytime from Feb-April throughout the Northeastern United States.  Plants prefer damp wooded soils and swampy areas and flower spathes can be seen breaking through snow and ice to bloom. Encased in a hard reddish mottled spathe, flowers appear before leaves, and provide an important early pollen source that honey bees need to rear brood.  This plant has green cabbage like leaves and a rotten smell when leaves are crushed, hence its horrible name.

Skunk Cabbage Through the Ice in March Michigan by VasenkaPhotography sm
Skunk cabbage flowers break through snow and ice by creating their own heat and melting it out of the way.
Photo by VasenkaPhotography Used under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage – A Space Heater For Foraging Bees

Even more amazing is this plants ability to create heat and provide warmth and shelter for foraging bees during this cold time of year. Eastern Skunk Cabbage can generate heat reaching temperatures ranging from 59-95 degrees F above air temperature by a process known as thermogenesis. It uses cyanide resistant cellular respiration to melt its way through frozen ground.  The head shell around the flower traps the warm air inside creating the prefect little space heater for honey bees.

"Symplocarpus foetidus (Skunk Cabbage) Long Island, NS" by magnolia1000

The flowers emit differing smells from unscented to carrion to garlic to entice pollinators inside.
Photo by magnolia1000 Used under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Honey Bees prefer to stop at scented flowers and the flowers of skunk cabbage emit differing scents varying from carrion, apple, turnip and garlic to entice the bees. As the bee forages for pollen to bring home to the hive, the flower emanates heat inside it’s shell creating a shelter for the bee that warms up the bees body so it can return safely home in the cold foraging temperatures that skunk cabbage blooms. A smelly weedy swamp plant functioning as a mini sauna and snack bar for bees – How cool is that!

"Symplocarpus foetidus - Skunk Cabbage" by Fritz Flohr Reynolds

Doesn’t it look warm and cozy in there? If you were a bee how could you resist?
Photo by Fritz Flohr Reynolds used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

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 Skunk Cabbage Feature Image by Benny Mazur. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License.

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13 Comments

  1. are these plants bulbs, and where can you purchase them

    • They are a native plant that likes to grow in swampy areas. I didn’t think you could purchase them but I just did a google search for “buy skunk cabbage” and a few places came up. Make sure you get the Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus Foetidus) because there are a few varieties.

  2. Great to know. I had always thought they were as unwelcome as the skunks who are waking and spraying like mad this time of year. I’m going to go down to my swamp now and look for their stinky, welcome flowers.

  3. I had no idea that skunk cabbage was a nectar plant for my bees! Plenty of it grows behind my house, and coincidentally, I have a watercolor of it in a show next month. I researched skunk cabbage for the painting, but I thought flies pollinated it…Great to know it benefits honeybees.

  4. Hello, can you just dig up existing skunk cabbage and replant? I would like to add to my property for the bees! I am new to this site. Thanks! Bettina

    • Hi Bettina,

      I have not tried doing this but since eastern skunk cabbage grows downward and deeper into the mud every year, I suspect it would be hard to dig up and replant. You can gather the seeds when they are ready and plant it this way though.

  5. Great information, I have for years seen bees in my back acreage on skunk cabbage, A new lesson for me and I thank you for posting it.

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