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 plants 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 birds scent and to
discourage investigation by four-footed predators.
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,
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
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
Newcombs Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb, Little
Brown & Co., 1989.
Burgess Flower Book for Children, by Thornton W. Burgess, Amereon Ltd.,
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
Copyright © 1999 Wild OnesNatural Landscapers,
photos of skunk cabbage, see the following web site: