What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens – Poisonous Plants

What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens – Poisonous Plants

By Melanie Priesnitz, Conservation Horticulturist

Spring has arrived in the Acadian Forest. Little green shoots are starting to emerge from the warming soil, songbirds are signing, and hibernating animals are stretching their legs. Despite the feeling that we humans sometimes have that winter will never end, we can trust in nature that there’s no stopping spring!

One fascinating and determined native plant emerging right now in southwestern Nova Scotia is Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). This aptly-named plant has a stinky but beautiful flower that begins to emerge from the soil, encapsulated in its spathe (flower sheath), as early as March. Skunk cabbage is not put off by spring snow; it has the ability to produce its own metabolic heat to thaw surrounding soil. Temperatures in the buds of these amazing plants have been recorded between 15–35°C. The internal heat not only melts any lingering snow, it also does a good job of spreading the plant’s charming odor, thus attracting pollinators such as flies and bees.

Skunk cabbage is rare in Nova Scotia and can be found in Digby and Yarmouth counties in wet thickets and swales, bogs, and mossy sphagnum woods. Eating this plant probably wouldn’t occur to you due to its smell, however it’s important to know that Skunk cabbage is highly poisonous. The plant contains crystal bundles of calcium oxalates, which can cause severe burning and inflammation in the mouth and throat if consumed. If enough of the leaves are eaten more serious side effects such as convulsions, coma, or death could occur.

If you spend time in the woods and are curious about what other potentially deadly plants are around you, there’s a great new app that you can download to your smartphone – ‘Harmful Nova Scotia Plants’ by Marian Munro, Curator of Botany at the Nova Scotia Museum. This information is also available on the Museum’s website at https://novascotia.ca/museum/poison/. We don’t have skunk cabbage in our bog at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens, but we do have pitcher plants. Stop by the Garden this spring to see what’s growing!

Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens
Acadia University
Photo: Skunk cabbage on Briar Island.