Natural Community: Red Maple Seepage Swamp

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Rock Creek Park

The most high-profile member of the Red Maple Seepage Swamp is the aptly named skunk-cabbage.


Created by Erin Ziegler, Explore Natural Communities Intern Summer 2015, NatureServe.

Music: Porch Swing Days - slower, by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Photos: Skunk-cabbage, by Gary Fleming. Licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0


Podcast time: 1:29 minutes

Do you smell that? You smell something faint but foul and turn around, wondering if a skunk has been there. The culprit, however, is the leafy, low-growing plant known as skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Though there are several other species that make up the Red Maple Seepage Swamp, skunk-cabbage is the distinctive feature. The swamp itself is located in a slight depression of the land and also hosts other plants like cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), and of course red maple (Acer rubrum). In the depressions, groundwater and rain keep the soil wet, so that only water-tolerant plants can survive.

While Seepage Swamps are few and far between in Rock Creek Park, you'll know this community by the striking display of the unique-looking skunk-cabbage. If you're searching for this plant, you'd better check your calendar first because it is totally hidden underground in late summer and fall. In late winter, though, hooded purple flowers melt through the snow to bloom and in the spring the wide, wavy leaves of the plant give the appearance of a cabbage patch. Skunk-cabbage goes dormant quickly as the summer heats up, with its above-ground parts seeming to dissolve in the high temperatures.

When the skunk-cabbage is up, you might as well find the Red Maple Seepage Swamp with your nose rather than with your eyes. If its leaves are crushed the plant gives off a smell like rotting meat, but it's the stinky flowers that attract pollinators, like flies, to its warmth in winter, and this putrid aroma that gives the plant its distinctive name.

No matter what stage skunk-cabbage may be in, the Red Maple Seepage Swamp is a truly unique natural community.

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