Don’t get me wrong, I love spring, but the first signs of green to shoot out of the leaf litter stink! While this spring seems to be on fast-forward, with many woodland wildflowers appearing almost to six weeks early, the first plants to sprout in Lake County were still the stinky duo of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), and Chicago‘s supposed namesake, wild leek (Allium tricoccum). The Native American tribes of this region called the plant in question “shikaakwa” or “chicagoua”.
Why do they smell? Well, it’s all about reproduction and attracting a pollinator. Skunk cabbage typically sprouts when there is still snow on the ground—a time of year when pollinators are few and far between. Sprouting skunk cabbage looks and smells like dead meat. While that may not sound appetizing to a human, flesh flies, carrion flies and gnats love it. Skunk cabbage can also increase its temperature and maintain this heat long enough to melt surrounding snow, rolling out the welcome mat for pollinators to visit and stay awhile. This plant can generate temperatures of up to 15-35°C above air temperature, placing it among a small group of plants that are capable of thermogenesis.
Wild leek (also known as ramps) embodies a more culinary smell and was used by Native Americans and early European settlers to season food. These leafy greens are among the first signs of plant life to pop up through the forest floor in Lake County.
Although it might be tempting to pluck a few to take home, remember that while the Lake County Forest Preserves does not allow collecting or harvesting on our properties, we do host an Annual Native Plant Sale where you can purchase native plants for your yard and garden. Not sure how to get started incorporating native plants in your yard? Join a naturalist for a Landscaping for Wildlife & Native Garden Tour.