Native to freshwater wetlands of eastern North America from Canada south to Tennessee and North Carolina. A truly fascinating plant featuring large, glossy, green leaves reminiscent of hostas, it forms long-lived colonies along streams and creeks in the shade of tall hardwoods.
Its common name comes from the pungent odor briefly released by unusual flowers in early spring to attract pollinating insects. Inconspicuous flowers are held inside a modified leaf with an opening in the side, called a spathe. This hoodlike spathe, reddish maroon, often with yellow streaks, is remarkable for its ability to generate internal heat, averaging 30 degrees higher than the surrounding air temperature, which it uses to melt any snow or ice covering it. After pollination, the flowers give rise to wine-red fruit clusters that drop seeds in late summer.
Leaves emerge in spring from a large bud next to the spathe. The bud elongates into the shape of a spear and then handsome, bright-green leaves unfold in a spiraling pattern to form a rosette. Held on long stems, the oblong leaves may eventually grow 3 feet long. Foliage begins to decay in summer and usually disappears by August.
Skunk cabbage needs consistently moist soil. Established plants are virtually impossible to dig from the wild due to massive networks of contractile roots that actually pull the plants deeply into mucky soil. Order skunk cabbage from specialty nurseries instead. Virtually no insects or animals eat it.