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Skunk Cabbage: Ephemeral, Alchemical and Smelly

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Wild plants can be clever.  Some wild plants are very clever.  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), also known as swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, meadow cabbage, or polecat weed, is crazy smart. Yes, smells a little like a skunk if you trample its foliage.  But that’s not the alchemical wonder that allows the plant to survive the winter.

In these dark days of the early New Year, if you check out bogs and damp hillsides in Eastern Canada and the United States, you may see skunk cabbage employ its defenses against the cold: it produces its own heat! You can see where, around its base, the skunk cabbage has melted the snow. As one of very few thermogenic plants, the skunk cabbage can produce warmth through cellular respiration. That heat can boost the plant’s internal temperature an average of more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the temperature of the air around the plant.

The skunk cabbage is more closely related to calla lilies than cabbage, and its flower presents a sort of calla lily profile. When the skunk cabbage makes its move in the early spring, it sends up bare dark mottled purple flower spathes through the mud. A western variety of skunk cabbage produces yellow flowers. Within the spathe is the knobby spadix, with the skunk cabbage’s actual flowers. These flowers share a skunky aroma with the foliage, and the warmth produced by the plant may help broadcast that scent for all the early pollinators.  They find the aroma delicious. And some pollinators, drawn to carrion when they can find it, make do with the warm, smelly flower spathe.

The emerging flower looks a little like the man-eating plant, Audrey, from Little Shop of Horrors, but skunk cabbage is not carnivorous. And, while some insects adore it, skunk cabbage is very unpleasant for mammals to ingest: it produces a burning and choking sensation in small quantities, and larger quantities can be lethal.

When the seeds are produced, the skunk cabbage drops the hard little pellets into the surrounding mud.  Where it grows happily, the skunk cabbage produces dense colonies. But by the time the trees start to produce their canopy of leaves above, the skunk cabbage withdraws back into the ground.  The leaves begin to disintegrate and then disappear.  And the roots of the skunk cabbage dig down deeper and deeper into the bog.  A mature skunk cabbage has developed such a deep root system that it may be impossible to dislodge. As the skunk cabbage disappears, its common companion plant, jewel weed, takes over the spotlight.

Iroquois medical botany has employed skunk cabbage as a treatment for coughs and headaches. One unusual use was to cause the teeth to fall out from the mouth of a dog or person who may have bitten you. To effect this rough justice, apply the crushed leaves on the bite as a poultice. A tea made from the dried leaves of skunk cabbage could be taken internally to ease constipation, or applied topically to cure a strong under arm smell. It would certainly mask it.

For a time in the 1800s, skunk cabbage was included in pharmacology and a preparation from its roots was sold as a drug called dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.

But I would say, if the plant has used everything including alchemy to