Skunk Cabbage, A Rarity In Hamilton County, Heralds Spring's Arrival

Mar 11, 2021

There are only two locations in Hamilton County where one of the earliest blooming wildflowers is known to grow, and just one where it grows naturally. It's called skunk cabbage and it begins pushing up through its marshy surroundings while snow still blankets the earth.

"In this part of Ohio, it's a rare plant," explains Great Parks Interpreter Paul Seevers during a recent guided, off-trail hike at the undeveloped Richardson Forest Preserve. "It's just not that common, we don't have a lot of wetlands. ... In other places it is very common."

Skunk cabbage, or Symplocarpus foetidus to use its scientific name, is called the "first flower of spring." Its reddish-purple bloom emerges first, followed by green cabbage-like leaves by late spring.

"What's amazing about it is what it does that kind of defies what we think of as a plant. For instance, it produces heat," Seevers explains. "It stores starch in its roots and it's able to burn that through, basically, cellular respiration. It's able to keep its temperatures up in the 70s, maybe 80s, even when it's below freezing outside."

The heat also helps the flower boost its scent, attracting pollinating insects. As its names ("skunk" and foetidus or "fetid") imply, the flower can have a stinky decaying flesh odor, though it's not overwhelmingly strong like its distant relative in the Arum family, the corpse flower.

Skunk cabbage is only known to grow in Hamilton County at Richardson Forest Preserve, where to Great Parks' knowledge, it occurs naturally. It can also be found in marshy areas at Miami Whitewater Forest, however, it was planted there by the park district.

Great Parks Interpreter Paul Seevers talks about skunk cabbage while leading a hike at Richardson Forest Preserve in early March.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

"There could be some on private property, I'm just not sure, but so many of the wetlands in Hamilton County were drained over 100 years ago for farming that I wonder how common it was at one point," Seevers ponders.

Richardson Forest Preserve is open to the public but isn't developed. There are no public facilities, parking or maintained trails. Great Parks hosts nature hikes there to view the skunk cabbage. Those hikes are greatly reduced in size this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.