Plant of the Week: Eastern skunk cabbage

Tucked into a boggy, wetland bed of the towering graceful cattail ( Typha laxmanii) and winter scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), a curious new addition has been added to the High Line's diverse plant collection. Eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is native to Eastern North American forests, woodlands, and bogs from Quebec to Tennessee, and is a member of the Arum plant family, Araceae. Eastern skunk cabbage typically blooms in the New York City region in February, when the ground is often still frozen, and pollinating insects are few.

Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.
The flowers are contained on a 2 to 4-inch flower spike of tiny petal-less clustered flowers, called a spadix. The spadix is surrounded by fleshy hood called a spathe, about 4 to 6 inches long, and is mottled burgundy red and purple. The flower spike emerges from the ground long before the 15 to 20-inch leaves emerge, surrounded by the spathe until the flowers are fully mature. Upon maturity the spathe begins to open to allow access to pollinators. The fleshy stem rhizomes of the plant remain buried underground and have roots that contract to pull the plant deeper into the humus-rich soil.
Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

Symplocarpus foetidus is able to have a competitive advantage above other perennials because of its ability to produce heat, a process called thermogenesis. On the coldest of winter days, Eastern skunk cabbage melts the snow around the protective spathe. When the spathe does finally open, the flowers emit a scent reminiscent of rotting meat (the specific epiphet, "foetidus," means "foul-smelling" or "stinking" in Latin). The heat generated by the plant disseminates the putrid smell to carrion-feeding pollinators, such as flesh flies and carrion flies.

PLANTING TIP:

Eastern skunk cabbage is a low-care plant, thriving in gardens from Plant Hardiness Zones 4 to 8. It grows well in moist to wet soils rich in organic matter, and can withstand strongly acidic soils. Plant Symplocarpus in the garden in light shade/partial sun where it can have permanence, as it is difficult to dig up once established. It can be propagated by dividing the plant when it is winter dormant, or from planting seeds that ripen in early autumn. Seeds cannot be stored, so plant them out as soon as they are fully mature. Because of the high calcium oxalate content of the leaves, wearing gardening gloves is advisable for those who are sensitive. Symplocarpus foetidus is a sight for sore eyes in the depths of winter, and is worthy of a permanent place in any garden with sunny-ish, wet soils.

WHERE TO FIND THIS PLANT:

At the Diller - von Furstenberg Sundeck & Water Feature, between 14th and 15th Streets.

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. Every week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.


TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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