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Skunk Cabbage
(Symplocarpus foetidus)

by Jeannine Palms

Skunk CabbageFamily: Araceae (Arum)

Habitat and Distribution: Wetlands. Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Minnesota and Iowa.

Origin of the Name: The genus name, Symplocarpus, is from the Greek words for “connection” and “fruit,” descriptive of the closely clustered balls of red berries that appear in late summer. The species name, foetidus, is a Latin specific name which refers to the plant’s fetid odor.

Description: The flowers, which bloom February to March and appear before the leaves, are tiny, perfect, ill-smelling, greenish-yellow to purplish-brown florets thickly scattered over a rounded, fleshy spadix hidden within a purplish-brown to greenish-yellow, usually mottled spathe in the shape of a hood. The leaves are large, broadly ovate, often a foot across, with petioles slightly grooved.

Observations: Thoreau observed that almost as soon as the leaves wither and die in the fall, new buds begin pushing upward. He suggested to anyone suffering from the melancholy of late autumn to go to the swamps “and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage buds already advanced toward the new years.” Insects benefit from the early blossoms. In March, when the weather gets warm enough to awaken them, bees must look far and wide for food. Skunk cabbages are out in force, providing plenty of pollen until early tree flowers appear. Following the flowers, the leaves, which by midsummer have formed huge clusters up to several feet wide, are natural umbrellas providing shelter for various creatures, including birds, frogs, and lizards. The yellowthroat, a variety of warbler, sometimes builds its nest in the hollow of a skunk cabbage, using the foul odor to mask the bird’s scent and to discourage investigation by four-footed predators.

Because it is widespread and eyecatching, it has gained a variety of folk names, including skunkweed, polecat weed, meadow cabbage, fetid hellebore, rockweed, swamp cabbage, Midas ears, parson in a pillory, clumpfoot cabbage, polkweed, and collard.

The showy clusters of leaves are decorative additions to wet areas. The plants, once established, are long-lasting. Smaller-sized plants may be transplanted in the spring, or the late-summer berries may be placed into moist soil.

Medicinal Use: According to Jack Sanders, Native Americans “dressed wounds with a powder obtained from the dried roots, used the huge leaves as poultices, and used root hairs to treat toothaches. The Delaware made a tea for whooping cough from the root, and epileptics among them chewed the leaf to avoid seizures. The Nanticoke used skunk cabbage in a cold medicine. Micmacs sniffed bundles of leaves to relieve headaches, though botanical explorer Peter Kalm found that the smell gave him a headache. Skunk cabbage has also been employed to treat asthma, rheumatism, hysteria, drops, and other maladies.”

Bibliography

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb, Little Brown & Co., 1989.

Burgess Flower Book for Children, by Thornton W. Burgess, Amereon Ltd., 1995.

Hedgemaids & Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders, McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Article reprinted from the Spring 1999 issue of the Ann Arbor Wild Ones Newsletter.
Copyright © 1999 Wild Ones–Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

 

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