One Hot and Stinky Plant

DSC_0004If a Quixotic* quest is a subtext of this 99wetlands project, then surely my eagerness to find Skunk Cabbage is emblematic of the whole experience. I am searching for a plant…

  • Found in a rare ecosystem (wetlands), and specifically one of the rarest type (seeps)
  • At the edge of its geographic range in Iowa, found in only a few places here
  • Blooming very early in the season (i.e., March)
  • With a most unusual biology: it is “warm-blooded” (!!!)
  • As the Latin name (Symplocarpus foetidus) implies, it is fetid…it stinks.

DSC_0005So, of course, I just had to go find some! I’ve seen the plant in summer (at Hanging Bog Preserve in Linn County), admiring the very large cabbage-like leaves that really do smell like skunk. But…I really wanted to find it in bloom.

My colleague Dr. Beth Lynch at Luther College was kind enough to point me to a couple sites near her location in Winneshiek county. She has published about the plant ecology of these unusual wetlands: Skunk Cabbage and associated plants of groundwater-fed “seeps.” These wetlands are associated with the hillsides and exposed strata of the “Driftless Area” of northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin—a region the glaciers missed, and the land has amazing topography. The exposed rocks and cliffs in places have a water discharge from the ground. Bluffs, rugged topography, and clear cold streams make this part of Iowa special!



So, armed with helpful hints, I went off on steep & twisting back roads outside Decorah. As instructed, I found a spot with several “benches” (natural terraces on the slope) in a steep valley. And, I found the Skunk Cabbage!! It was in bloom, and pretty. My photos aren’t great, but the flowers are teardrop-shaped, perhaps the size of your hand, and a dark crimson color, mottled with cream or gold splotches. with no snow in this particular spot, so we can’t observe the effects of thermogenesis, a special sort of metabolism in which the plant heats up the surrounding ground (even perhaps melting the snow around the plant). It has been suggested that the warming not only exposes the blossoms in the snow, but also spreads the odors on the air, enticing insect pollinators to come over. Ingenious!

Like a genie emerging from a bottle, this unusual flower emerges from the ground. Later, very large cabbage-like leaves (smelling of…skunk) will appear, capturing energy to power next spring’s show. Yet another unusual set of adaptations to grow in an unusual habitat.

For those convinced that Iowa is “flat and boring,” may I challenge you to come to the Driftless area? You will discover a very special place.

Do you have a favorite example of a wetland species with unusual biology? A special natural event that happens outdoors during this winter/spring transition? A delightful Iowa spot to tell us about? Please share in the comments!

EDIT: Richard Lutz has an amazing website for Iowa plants—really worth checking out. The page for Skunk Cabbage has amazing (beautiful, detailed) photos; you’ll find lots of technical information and natural history.

* Didn’t expect a wetland nerd to make a literary reference, did you? I also sometimes incorporate song lyrics in some posts. It’s my version of a Liberal Arts education, dear reader.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “One Hot and Stinky Plant”

  1. One of my favorite wildflowers in Montana is the trillium, because it hints at water even when none is visible. It grew along a creek that ran through my backyard as a child, and I always watched for it on mountain hikes. A Google search tells me that trilliums grow in Iowa, but I’ve not seen one. Maybe I need to visit more wetlands?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, what a delightful flower. I’d say in the upper midwest I associate Trillium with shady woods…soil doesn’t dry out as much. Having to go look a bit to find them makes their
      beauty even more lovely.


  2. There are so many beautiful Iowa wetland flowers that I can’t decide on a favorite. So I’ll pick a pretty bloomer that I really enjoy seeing in early spring. Swamp buttercup, Ranunculus septentrionalis, you are such a bright beckoning yellow that it’s no wonder hungry little native bees love you.

    Liked by 1 person

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