Uses for skunk cabbage

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Tuesday – May 19, 2009

From: Troy, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: Edible Plants, Poisonous Plants, Problem Plants
Title: Eliminating skunk cabbage in Troy, NY
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

My yard is overgrown with skunk cabbage. My question is how do I get rid of it?

ANSWER:

It’s a darn shame that Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage) smells so bad, because it’s really sort of fascinating. According to our webpage on that plant, the smell of the bruised leaves simulates that of decaying flesh, which attracts the insects, probably flies, that pollinate it. That webpage also says:

“Plant the skunk cabbage where you want it to stay, since a full-grown plant will have a bushel of soil adhering to its roots and is next to impossible to move. The bruised leaves have a foul odor which gives the skunk cabbage its name. Otherwise the plant has no odor.”

That means people are actually planting it, but we don’t blame you for wanting to get rid of it. As you see from the above paragraph, pulling it would probably be a real chore. And in the process, you would be crushing the leaves and releasing the very unpleasant odor. Just to add insult to injury, the young, uncurled leaves and roots are considered edible, and there are instructions for cooking it on our webpage. At the same time, everything else on the plant is considered toxic.

Since the plant doesn’t grow in Texas (thank goodness) we went looking for some more information on it in an effort to answer your question. We found this essay by Craig Holdrege from The Nature Institute on Skunk Cabbage to be both entertaining and informative.

We tried to find some literature on getting rid of the skunk cabbage, but couldn’t locate anything. We will try to come up with something on our own. To begin with, apparently this plant only flourishes in wetlands, swampy, marshy places. Is that the condition of your yard? Perhaps you need to address drainage in your area, and not just because of the skunk cabbage. That is something we can’t help you with, just a suggestion.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recommends neither for nor against the use of herbicides. If you can find ways to rid your yard of this plant by manually cutting off the upper parts, please do so. The use of a toxic material is a last resort action, and can damage the environment if you use too much and the excess drains off into nearby waterways.

This plant spreads itself by seed, not by rhizomes. You need to eliminate the blooms, which carry the seed, before they have a chance to ripen and fall on the ground nearby. It’s obvious from the information we already have that the roots are not going to let you pull them out. So, we would suggest cutting the plant off at the soil line, and immediately, before it can heal itself over (like in 5 minutes) use a small disposable sponge paintbrush and paint a glysophate herbicide over the root tip sticking out of the ground. Doing this early in the season would prevent the seeds from ever forming. Learn to recognize the leaves when they come up later, and immediately repeat cutting the stem off at ground level. Without leaves to provide nourishment for the roots, and without seeds to propagate the plant, the roots will eventually exhaust their food stores and die. You will need to do this very carefully so as not to contaminate the soil or plants you wish to preserve in the area. You won’t get all the roots the first time around; so be on the lookout for the first of the spathes coming up in very early Spring, and cut them off. We realize this is going to be unpleasant, smelly work. Certainly you don’t want to dispose of these plants in your compost pile and just draw more flies, plus the seeds could very well germinate in the compost. So, bag the whole lot up and send it to the dump.

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Grounds Maintainance

Almost everyone agrees that glyphosate–Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide–is a fairly benign material. However, it may be more than just benign: Apparently, some research has shown that glyphosate can actually effectively treat some forms of cancer.

Proctor & Gamble reportedly has applied for international patents for glyphosate in the form of pills, powder and liquid. Although Proctor & Gamble isn’t saying much about its research, it appears that glyphosate shows effectiveness against leukemia, and breast, colon and lung cancers. It also seems to be less destructive to healthy tissue than conventional chemotherapy treatments.

To many people, the “kick ’em while they’re down” strategy seems logical for weed control. By this thinking, it makes sense to apply broadleaf herbicides to turf just after mowing, when the weeds have been stressed by being cut. In reality, however, broadleaf herbicides may be much less effective on recently mowed turf, according to Purdue University researchers.

In a recent 2-year study, the researchers applied 2,4-D + 2,4-DP ester to dandelions growing in a greenhouse and to field-grown dandelions. The researchers mowed the field-grown dandelions to 1 or 2 inches or left them unmowed (about 4 inches tall) before applying the herbicide. They inflicted 0-, 50- or 75-percent defoliationon the greenhouse dandelions before treatment.

The herbicide controlled both the greenhouse and field-grown dandelions much more effectively when the plants retained greater foliage. In the field study, the herbicide controlled the unmowed dandelions effectively (80-percent control or better) both years of the study. However, control of the dandelions mowed to 2 inches was effective only 1 of the 2 years, and control of those mowed to 1 inch was not effective either year. The greenhouse dandelions showed similar results.

In addition, the researchers weighed the roots and crowns of dandelions 2 days after removing 75 percent of their foliage. They found a 42-percent reduction in dry weight and suggest that this was due to upward mobilization of nutrients by the plant to regenerate new leaves. The researchers note that upward movement of materials within dandelions following foliage loss may discourage downward travel of applied herbicides. However, they point out another reason why foliage loss could reduce herbicide effectiveness: Reduced leaf area means the plant will intercept less of the herbicide. In other words, it reduces the dose.

To illustrate the importance of this, the Purdue researchers note that rainy springs often cause mowing delays, resulting in scalping when the overgrown turf finally is accessible to mowers. Because this can reduce the effectiveness of broadleaf herbicides, turf applicators should delay broadleaf-herbicide applications until scalped turf has regrown somewhat.

10 plants that can kill you – keep an eye out for Skunk Cabbage

5 Gympie-Gympie:

The Australian Gympie-Gympie tree is the worst of the stinging plants trees. The Gympie-Gympie’s agonizing pain is derived from a neurotoxin delivered through its hairs that cover the whole plant.

In one distressing case, a gentleman is claimed to have shot himself after by mistakenly by using the leaf as toilet paper in the bush. The frightening tree comprises one of the most tenacious toxins identified to man, and scorching sensations may endure up to two years after being stung.

The plant is so dangerous that the Australian forest employees use specialized suits to project the workers.

6 Himalayan Blackberry:

This is a plant you don’t want to mess with. Himalayan Blackberry can cover half an acre or more with treacherous piercing thorns. Unlike standard blackberries, each stalk measures up to an inch thick, and they’re as tough as nails, coming across this plant might get you a visit to the emergency room rather than a bowl full of lovely fruit.

Lacerations from chance blunders into this innocent looking plant could result in serious damage and getting tangles could mean blood loss on a scale that needs medical attention. Hikers have been known to fall in gorge infested Himalayan Blackberry, and the results have been gruesome.

7 New Zealand Tree Nettle:

The New Zealand Tree Nettle, or ongaonga in Māoris. The gigantic plant is extremely toxic tree version of the regular stinging nettle; it can grow up to 10 feet tall. The thriving cloaked plant is equipped with strangely large needles that can deliver a very painful cocktail of neurotoxin.

It’s essential to be cautious while hiking. There are stories of fatal encounters with this plant, in one case it’s said that a hunter was killed after just touching one of these dreadful nettles. Even if this isn’t the case, It’s fair to say it’s going to be very uncomfortable.

8 Red Tide Algae:

The Red Tide is a frightening occurrence that causes issues around the worlds coastlines. During seasonal changes, the waters turn a rust color as thousands of small seaweeds recognized as Algera Pelagius multiply. The algae are quickly adsorbed by shellfish and are tremendously strong neurotoxic. This builds up inside shellfish and can be released when they’re consumed.

Some people say that the Red Tide is the foundation of the Biblical Plagues, as said the waters changed into blood. It’s also thought to be the cause of the passing of one Captain George Vancouver’s crew upon the course plotting to Western Canada.

Do not swim where there’s Red Algae and be careful where your shellfish come from.

9 Skunk Cabbage:

Skunk Cabbage is a large, vulgar smelling North American member of the Aurum Family. Natural to swamps, the aroma of the plant is frequently mistaken for a skunk when it blooms.

Even though certain portions of the Skunk Cabbage were discovered to be fit for human consumption by Native Americans, it needs to be pointed out that if it needs to be prepared properly, otherwise death can occur if enough of the plant is ingested.

10 Spurge Laurel:

This modest plant with small, lustrous leaves has frequently been established in decorative gardens and community grounds. The sap from this plant is caustic and every part of the plant is poisonous.

Ingesting even several berries can result in major internal issues. Fascinatingly, tribes have used Spurge Laurel as a drug of last resort for extremely ill patients, but the cure might be worse than the disease. Birds don’t seem to suffer any ill affects from the berries.

So, unless you know what you’re touching or thinking of eating, don’t! Identify it first.

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Description

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowers emerge from the ground in early spring before the leaves. The whole plant generates heat through cyanide-free cellular repiration (whatever that means!), making it one of the few plants capable of this “thermogenesis”.

The plants can produce temperatures of 15-35 degrees C (55-95 F) allowing them to grow through frozen ground. The heat may also help them spread the odor of their flowers and attract early spring pollinators which come to eat and take refuge in the flower structure.

The “flowers” actually consist of a spathe and a spadix. A spathe is a modified leaf which looks like a hood. The spathe surrounds a spadix, a cylindric structure which contains a bunch of tiny flowers packed together.

Eastern skunk cabbage spathes are 10-15cm (4-6 in) and range in color from mottled maroon and yellow to solid maroon, while spadices are 5-10cm (2-5 in) and can be pure yellow or dark purple. The leaves are impressively large, 40–55 cm (15.75-21.5 in) long and 30–40 cm (12-15.75 in) wide. They are arranged in a basal rosette which simply means that the leaves are born in a circle around a central stem which does not grow higher than ground level.

The plants are ephemeral. That is, their leaves die by late summer and the plants go dormant until the following spring. After being pollinated the flowers produce a large 10cm (4inch) tall by 1cm (1/3 inch) wide, purple or black, compound fruit which ripens as or soon after the rest of the plant has gone dormant. Like the flowers, the fruit becomes smelly as it matures.

Underground the plant has a large central root about 30 cm (1 foot long) by about 7 1/2 -15 cm (3-6 inches) wide. The main root is surrounded by a large mass of fibrous roots. Each year the roots contract and pull the plant deeper into the ground making it almost impossible to dig up.

Range

Eastern skunk cabbage is a boreal species found in both North America and Asia. Some botanists consider the Symplocarpus found in northeast China, Siberia, and Japan a separate species (or several species). Either way they are closely related, and our lineage is thought to have crossed the Bering Strait during one of the ice ages when sea level was lower and there was a land connection between North America and Asia. It is curiously absent between the west coast and Minnesota (considering it migrated from Asia). It ranges from Minnesota and Northern Ontario to the east coast of the USA and Canada and as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. Another genus of skunk cabbage, Lysichiton, has several species and is found in the Western United States and Asia.

Habitat and Cultivation

Eastern skunk cabbage grows in wet mucky soil, along streams or springs, in woods, thickets, and bogs. It can even grow on hillsides but only if there is a continuous seepage of water. Skunk cabbage appears to be tolerant of soil ranging from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. This truly striking, bizarre, and fascinating plant would make an exciting addition to any garden that has the right conditions. The plant can be purchased from a small handful of specialty nurseries or grown from freshly collected seeds (with permission from the landowner where the parent plants are growing) that are not allowed to dry out. Skunk cabbage needs a wet shady spot and tolerates shallow standing water but only if it is not permanent and soaks in the soil or evaporates over time.

Wildlife Use

The leaves of eastern skunk cabbage are food for snails and slugs as well as ruby tiger moth (Phragmatobia fulginosa) and cattail borer moth (Bellura obliqua) caterpillars. Although the leaves contain crystals of calcium oxalate, making them toxic to most animals, hungry snapping turtles and bears have been observed eating the leaves in spring. Gnats, carrion flies (Calliphoridae), and flesh flies (Sarcophagidae) pollinate the flowers which they are attracted to due to their flesh-like smell and appearance as well as the warm temperatures generated by and sustained within the spathe. Not surprisingly, spiders like to live in skunk cabbage flowers where they await unsuspecting pollinators. (Wildlife information from www.illinoiswildflowers.info)

Cultural Value

Eastern skunk cabbage roots were cooked and eaten by some Native American tribes. Various parts of the plant were prepared in lots of different ways (depending on the symptom, wound, or infection) to treat conditions ranging from headache, earache, bleeding, to skin and mouth sores etc. Because the leaves, stems, and flowers are toxic, use of this plant without oversight from a trained physician with extensive herbal experience is not advised!

Conservation

Skunk cabbage is still relatively common but only in undisturbed older woods and bogs. It is a conservative species that does not bounce back from deforestation or changes in water levels that often accompany agriculture and development. Protecting the habitat of this and other sensitive plants and animals is of great importance.

Skunk cabbage in swamp in spring.

One of the first native first native plants to bloom in early spring in the upper Midwest is Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly called skunk cabbage, swamp cabbage or other names referring to the shape of the large leaves or it’s smell. Skunk cabbage was used medicinally by Native Americans, and in the 19th century was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as the drug “dracontium” for the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy. This low-growing plant in the arum family (Araceae) has a boreal distribution in North America and possibly northeast Asia (some botanists consider the Symplocarpus found in northeast China, Siberia, and Japan to be the same species, but others do not; there is also a similar-looking species, yellow-spathe western skunk cabbage, Lysichitum americanum, that occurs in western North America). In eastern North America it is native from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec in Canada, west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. It is found in moist habitats, including marshy deciduous woods, wet thickets, swamps, near springs, alongside streams and wetlands, by seeps, and in bogs, where it is often in bloom well before the snow melts.

Skunk cabbage can bloom even when there is snow on the ground.

Skunk cabbage is one of just a few plants that exhibit thermogenesis, or the ability to metabolically generate heat, by cyanide resistant cellular respiration. Since it can bloom while there is still snow and ice on the ground, the spadix can generate temperatures on average 20 degrees warmer inside the spathe than the surrounding air temperature for nearly two weeks, even keeping the temperature constant and optimal for flower maturation and pollination.

The dark-colored flowers emerge before the leaves come out.

The dark-colored flower buds are the first thing to poke out of the mud in the spring, often before the vernal equinox in many locations, and many times when there is still snow on the ground. This plant produces an inflorescence typical of the arum family, with a large spathe surrounding the spadix. The twisted, hood-like spathe, with a narrow opening on one side, is 4-6 inches tall that is pointed at the apex. They may be solid deep wine-red or maroon, or mottled or streaked with yellow or green. The spathe never opens completely, forming a protective enclosure around the ovoid spadix that can be pale yellow to dark purple in color. Numerous small flowers are tightly packed on the 2-5 inch long spadix. Each individual ¼ inch flower has no petals, but just four inconspicuous, fleshy, straw-colored sepals that never unfold. The stigmas (female parts) are exerted first, and then the stamens (male parts) emerge at the base of each stigma, preventing self-pollination.

The spathe never fully opens and remains surrounding the spadix (L), which can range in color from pale yellow (LC), to mottled (RC), to dark purple in color (R). The stigmas and stamens are exerted from the sepals in all three.

As its common name suggests, this plant has stinky-smelling flowers, with a somewhat skunk-like scent. The putrid odor lures in its pollinators, primarily carrion-feeding flies and gnats, which are attracted to the scent of decomposing flesh, but they can be visited by bees, beetles, and other insects, possibly because of the warmth of the flowers. The insects carry the pollen from one flower to another to pollinate the plants.

After the flowers are pollinated, the flower head swells and develops into a compound fruit with a blocky surface. The spathe withers and disappears, leaving the ovoid to rounded, simple fruits on an elongated stalk. The 2 inch diameter fruit heads have numerous berry-like fruits, each with one seed, that form a bumpy geometric pattern. They start out green and dark purple, but change to maroon and then dark brown or black, so they are easily overlooked laying on dark soil. In late summer the fruit heads fall apart and the hard, pea-sized seeds fall into the mud to be dispersed by animals or water, or germinate where they lay.

By late spring or summer the spathes at the base of the plant (L) wither away (C) to leave the blocky compound fruit exposed, but easily overlooked (R).

The leaves all emerge from a single bud that formed from the thick rootstock the previous fall. Once the spathe begins to wilt – about the same time temperatures are consistently warm enough not to freeze the new leaves – the spear-shaped bud begins begin to expand, growing longer than the spathe and rapidly unfolding in a spiral pattern. Each rolled, bright green leaf unfurls like a scroll to expose the next leaf, eventually forming a large, funnel-shaped rosette of dark green leaves. The oblong to ovate leaves grow up to 36 inches long and a foot wide on thick petioles. The petioles – which start out quite short, but eventually grow up to 1 foot long – are concave along their upper surfaces. Each leaf has entire margins that may be a little wavy, a smooth surface, and conspicuous veins that produce an almost quilted appearance. The leaves have a pungent, skunk-like odor if cut or crushed. The foliage is rich in calcium oxalate so causes irritation in the mouth and throat if ingested, but some animals, such as bear or some birds, will eat the buds or very young leaves as they are unfurling.

The leaves emerge from a single bud (L) to unfurl in a spiral (LC, C, RC) to form a large, funnel-shaped rosette (R).

By the time the trees have leafed out to form a complete canopy, the leaves of skunk cabbage begin to decline. Small holes appear in the leaves, parts turn black, and they begin to wither away and decay, disintegrating into the environment until only a few leaf bases remain by the end of summer. Being a very fast grower, all the above aboveground parts, including leaves, petioles and the spathe and spadix, have a spongy, watery texture with very little of the fibrous cellulose that stiffens woodier plants, so there is almost no dry matter left on the ground to decay.

Skunk cabbage has a massive root system, with contractile roots which pulls the plant deeper into the soil each year. A few inches below the surface a thick mat of unbranched, fibrous roots grows out in all directions from the elongated rootstock for a few feet, terminating in an extensive system of fibrous rootlets. The roots and rootstock store large amounts of nutrients necessary to for thermogenesis and to produce the lush foliage the following year.

A dense natural population of skunk cabbage in a marshy area.

Skunk cabbage is occasionally cultivated in gardens with the appropriate conditions, and would make an interesting specimen for the bog garden, but more commonly is seen just in natural habitats. It is typically found growing with sedges, jewelweeds, and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). Old plants are extremely difficult to dig out, so transplanting young plants or growing from seed are the best options for moving skunk cabbage into a very moist garden. The seeds will germinate either in the fall or in spring, but should be planted in the fall when fresh and uncleaned (leave the gelatinous coating) and should not be allowed to dry out before planting. It does best in partial sun to light shade and consistently wet mucky soil. It tolerates shallow standing water for a short time, but will not survive where the crown remains under water all year.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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Skunk Cabbage Facts: Growing Skunk Cabbages In Gardens

The skunk cabbage plant may be unusual, and stinky, but it is also quite interesting and uses for skunk cabbage in the garden could actually be beneficial. Keep reading for more skunk cabbage facts.

Skunk Cabbage Facts

So what is skunk cabbage? Skunk cabbage is a perennial wildflower that grows in swampy, wet areas of forest lands. This unusual plant sprouts very early in the spring, and has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring.

While the first sprout, a pod-like growth, looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, the skunk cabbage is a plain-looking green plant once the leaves appear. You may find two common types: Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which is purple, and Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), which is yellow. Skunk cabbage gets its name from

the fact that, when the leaves are crushed or bruised, it gives off a smell of skunk or rotting meat.

Growing Skunk Cabbages in Gardens

The uses for skunk cabbage in the home garden are all tied into that distinctive smell. While it repels humans, that smell is like perfume to bees, butterflies and many other beneficial insects. If you’re having a hard time attracting pollinators or beneficial wasps, mixing a few skunk cabbage plants in with the rest of your garden may be a good solution.

Skunk cabbage also repels many mammals, so it can be useful if you have a problem with four-legged vegetable thieves. If squirrels are eating your corn or raccoons get into your tomatoes, the scent of skunk cabbage may be enough to keep them away, allowing you to harvest food without bite marks.

Is Skunk Cabbage Poisonous?

For the insects that love the scent and nectar from the skunk cabbage plant, it is a natural and healthy part of their diet. For human beings, dogs, cats and other mammals, it’s a totally different story. In small doses, or two small bites, the skunk cabbage plant can cause burning and swelling of the mouth and a choking sensation. Eating larger portions of these leaves can, in extreme cases, be fatal.

If you have small children, inquisitive pets or neighbors who may accidentally eat some leaves from your garden, growing skunk cabbage may not be a good idea. However, if the smell doesn’t bother you and you want to attract the right kind of insects to your garden, adding this unusual wildflower might be just the right choice.

When does this bloom?
Feb-Mar

Where does this bloom?
176.1, 185.8, 217.0

Eastern Skunk Cabbage is a low growing plant that prefers wetlands. It received its name from its foul smell. This plant is native to eastern North America and can be found as far north as Nova Scotia and south as far as North Carolina and Tennessee, It has also been spotted in northeastern Asia including Siberia, China and Japan. Although it is commonly known as “Skunk Cabbage”, it may also be referenced as , Clumpfoot Cabbage, Foetid Pothos, Meadow Cabbage, Polecat Weed, Skunk Cabbage, or Swamp Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It is the only species in the genus and is protected as a state endangered plant in Tennessee.

Skunk cabbage is most commonly found in the wetlands of the Blue Ridge Parkway closests to Mileposts 176.1, 185.8, 217.0. It typically reaches the peak of its bloom season in the months of February and March.

To help identify this plant in your journey on the Parkway, look for its distingushed leaves which are large (40-55 cm long and 30-40 cm broad). It flowers very early in the year and produces a bloom that is mottled purple in color. At first, only the flowers are visible above the mud, with the stems buried below and the leaves emerging later.

Ecology

Skunk cabbage earned its name from its odor, which is rather mild as long as the plant remains intact. Tearing or ripping of a fresh leaf will release its pungent odor. Though unpleasant, the smell is not harmful. The purpose of the foul odor is to attract its pollinators: scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees. The odor in the leaves may also serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging the plant. Though not poisonous to the touch, the skunk cabbage is considered to be inedible.

Skunk cabbage is known in botany for its ability to exhibite thermogenesis. This process creates heat of up to 15-35° C above air temperature and can melt its way through frozen ground. Although flowering while there is still snow and ice on the ground, it is successfully pollinated by early insects that also emerge at this time fueling pollination.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage has roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. It is thought that these plants may be able to live for hundreds of years. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.

Uses

In the 19th century the U. S. Pharmacopoeia listed eastern skunk cabbage as the drug “dracontium”. It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy. In North America and Europe, skunk cabbage is occasionally cultivated in water gardens. Skunk cabbage was used extensively as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman by various tribes of Native Americans.

Skunk Cabbage Quick Facts
Name: Skunk Cabbage
Scientific Name: Symplocarpus foetidus
Origin Eastern North America
Colors Green when young turning to black as they mature
Shapes Oval-shaped
Flesh colors Whitish
Taste Acrid taste
Calories 11 Kcal./cup
Major nutrients Vitamin C (34.22%)
Vitamin A (25.14%)
Iron (11.75%)
Magnesium (9.52%)
Vitamin B9 (8.00%)

Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly known as skunk cabbage, eastern skunk cabbage, swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, meadow cabbage, foetid pothos and polecat weed is a low growing, foul-smelling tuberous plant of the Aurum family that grows in wetlands around the world. The plant is native to the eastern North America; it ranges from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. It is secure as endangered in Tennessee. The skunk cabbage is named so because its leaves look a lot like the leaves of the cabbage. The whole skunk cabbage plant has a strong fetid smell largely depending on the unstable determinant and the smell is normally deteriorated by heat instantly.

Skunk Cabbage is remarkable in that it is able to generate heat when the ground is frozen. In fact, its flowers can warm up to around 70º F. This allows the plant to emerge and bloom when most other spring blooming species are still dormant. The root and underground stem (rhizome) are used to make medicine. The pungent smelling roots of the skunk cabbage have been a popular conventional cure for bronchitis, tight coughs and phlegm or catarrh. Several herbal medical practitioners recommend the skunk cabbage to treat nervous disorders as it is said to have moderate sedative or tranquilizing properties. In earlier times, an indigenous tribe of America also inhaled in the aroma of the mashed skunk cabbage leaves to get relief from headaches.

Plant Description

Skunk cabbage is a low growing, foul smelling tuberous plant that grows about 30-90cm (1-3ft) tall. The plant is found growing in swamps, wet woods, along streams, and other wet low areas and normally prefers moist, wetland soil. Roots are fleshy, contractile and rhizome is usually two inches or little more in length and measure one inch in diameter and 30 cm (1 ft.) thick. Skunk cabbage rhizomes are found in slanting slivers that are compacted and ridged. The rhizomes have a dark brown hue on the exterior and are white or yellowish inside.

Leaves

Eastern skunk cabbage has leaves which are very large entire margined with a plastic like appeal, and have a slight wrinkle, about 40–55 cm (15.75–21.5 in) long and 30–40 cm (12–15.75 in) broad. It flowers early in the spring when only the flowers are visible above the mud. The stems remain buried below the surface of the soil with the leaves emerging later. The flowers are produced on a 5–10 cm (2–5 in) long spadix contained within a spathe, 10–15 cm (4–6 in) tall and mottled purple in color.

Flower & fruit

As the spathe gets bigger, it will reveal another part inside, called a spadix. The spadix is a litle knob covered with small flowers. Numerous small, purple flowers grow on a small, oval, fleshy spike (or spadix), covered by a purple and yellowish-green, hood like bract (or spathe). Flowering time is from February to April, before the leaves appear. The whole plant emits a skunk or garlic odor. The plant bears oval-shaped fruit that are green when young turning to black as they mature. The fruit has wrinkled outer skin and whitish flesh.

Closer-view-of-Skunk-cabbage-flower Leaf-of-Skunk-Cabbage-plant Roots-of-Skunk-cabbage-Plant
Skunk-cabbage Plant Spathe of Skunk-cabbage plant-with-flower Skunk-Cabbage-dried-root-liquid-extract
Skunk-cabbage-growing-in-snow Skunk-Cabbage-plant-Illustration Skunk-Cabbage-showing-broad-leaves
Skunk-Cabbage-sketch Spathe-of-Skunk-cabbage Tiny-Skunk-cabbage–plant

Traditional uses and benefits of Skunk Cabbage

  • It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy.
  • Skunk cabbage was much used by the native North American Indians mainly for its expectorant and antispasmodic properties to treat bronchitis and asthmatic conditions, a use that is still used in modern herbalism.
  • Root is antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, expectorant and slightly narcotic.
  • Rootstock has been used internally in the treatment of respiratory and nervous disorders, including asthma, whooping cough, catarrh, bronchitis, mucous congestion and hay fever.
  • It is occasionally used to treat epilepsy, headaches, vertigo and rheumatic problems.
  • Externally, it has been used as a poultice to draw splinters and thorns, to heal wounds and to treat headaches.
  • Root hairs or rootlets have been applied to dental cavities to treat toothache.
  • Tea made from the root hairs has been used externally to stop bleeding.
  • An inhalation of the crushed leaves has been used in the treatment of headaches.
  • The leaf bases have been applied as a wet dressing to bruises.
  • It is said to be helpful in epilepsy and convulsions during pregnancy and labor.
  • Externally, as an ointment, it stimulates granulations, eases pain, etc. and relieves the pain of all external tumors and sores.
  • It is helpful for nervous disorders, spasmodic problems, rheumatism, and dropsy.
  • Some Native Americans boiled the root hairs to make a wash for stopping external bleeding.
  • One tribe inhaled the odor of the crushed leaves to cure headache or toothache (which may be a classic case of a cure worse than the disease).
  • Root is poultice for wounds, underarm deodorant; leaf is poultice to reduce swelling, they ate the root to stop epileptic seizures.
  • It is very reliable in tuberculosis, chronic catarrh, fevers, whooping cough, epilepsy, convulsions, and pleurisy.
  • It is also an excellent remedy in dysentery, convulsions, dropsy, hysteria, epilepsy, and for use during pregnancy.
  • It is used in the treatment of cancer, fluid retention, excessive bleeding (hemorrhage), anxiety, snakebite, skin sores, splinters, swellings, and wounds.
  • Skunk cabbage is also used to stimulate the digestive system.

Culinary uses

  • While not considered edible raw, because the roots are toxic and the leaves can burn the mouth, the leaves may be dried and used in soups and stews.
  • Root must be thoroughly dried or cooked before being eaten.
  • Traditionally the root was dried for at least 5 weeks or boiled for 3 days before being eaten.

Dosing considerations for Skunk Cabbage

The appropriate dose of skunk cabbage depends on several factors such as the user’s age, health, and several other conditions. At this time there is not sufficient scientific information to determine an appropriate range of doses for skunk cabbage. Keep in mind that natural products are not always necessarily safe and dosages can be important. Be sure to follow relevant directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or physician or other healthcare professional before using.

Other facts

  • Skunk cabbage is protected as endangered in Tennessee.
  • The plant is foul smelling when it blooms.
  • Odor in the leaves serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging this plant which grows in soft wetland soils.
  • The water should be changed at least once during the cooking process.
  • It should not be stored for a long time because it loses its medicinal qualities.
  • An infusion of the powdered root has been used as a wash to ‘cure a strong smell under your arm.
  • Skunk cabbages do not produce seed until they are five to seven years old.
  • Skunk Cabbage leaves are poisonous to mammals (including us).

Precautions

  • The plant is considered poisonous.
  • Calcium oxylate in all parts of the plant is toxic and if consumed makes the mouth and digestive tract feel as though hundreds of needles are being stuck into it.
  • However, calcium oxylate is easily destroyed by thoroughly cooking or drying the plant.
  • Itching and inflammation possible with root contact.
  • Handling the fresh leaves can cause skin to blister whilst excessive doses of the root can bring on nausea and vomiting, headaches, vertigo, dimness of vision and dizziness. Skin hives, rash, and itchy or swollen skin have been reported.
  • Avoid during pregnancy and breast feeding.
  • Avoid with kidney stones.
  • Large doses cause nausea, vomiting, headache, vertigo and dimness of vision.
  • It may worsen gastrointestinal ulcers, gastrointestinal inflammation or cause irritation, abdominal cramps, burning, blistering in the mouth and throat, colic, and watery or bloody diarrhea.
  • Breathing problems, tightness in the throat or chest, and chest pain have also been reported with use of skunk cabbage.

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Skunk cabbage

Natural Standard Bottom Line Monograph, Copyright © 2013 (www.naturalstandard.com). Commercial distribution prohibited. This monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.

While some complementary and alternative techniques have been studied scientifically, high-quality data regarding safety, effectiveness, and mechanism of action are limited or controversial for most therapies. Whenever possible, it is recommended that practitioners be licensed by a recognized professional organization that adheres to clearly published standards. In addition, before starting a new technique or engaging a practitioner, it is recommended that patients speak with their primary healthcare provider(s). Potential benefits, risks (including financial costs), and alternatives should be carefully considered. The below monograph is designed to provide historical background and an overview of clinically-oriented research, and neither advocates for or against the use of a particular therapy.

Related Terms

  • Alkaloids, Araceae (family), caffeic acid, calcium oxalate, Col apestosa, Dracontium, Dracontiumfoetidum L, eastern skunk cabbage, fatty oil, flavonol glycosides, Indian potato, meadow cabbage, n-hydroxytryptamine, narcotic, Orontium, phenolic compounds, pole-cat cabbage, polecatweed, Spathyemafoetida, swamp cabbage, Symplocarpus, Symplocarpusfoetidus, Symplocarpusrenifolius, tannin.

  • Note: This monograph covers only eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpusfoetidus), not western skunk cabbage (Lysichitonamericanum).

Background

  • Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpusfoetidus), or skunk cabbage, is closely related to western skunk cabbage (Lysichitonamericanum). Although very similar, these swamp-growing plants do not belong to the same genus. Skunk cabbage is predictably named for the foul smelling oil produced by the plant. Care must be taken in preparation of skunk cabbage, as the large amounts of calcium oxylate in all parts of the plant may cause excruciating pain upon ingestion.

  • Skunk cabbage is used to promote labor and treat dropsy (edema). The flower essence of the plant is also indicated to “move stagnated energy.” In addition to its medicinal properties, skunk cabbage is boiled and eaten by Native Americans as a famine food.

  • Currently, there is a lack of available scientific evidence supporting the use of skunk cabbage for any indication.

Scientific Evidence

Uses

These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.

Grade*

No available studies qualify for inclusion in the evidence table.

*Key to grades:A: Strong scientific evidence for this use; B: Good scientific evidence for this use; C: Unclear scientific evidence for this use; D: Fair scientific evidence against this use (it may not work); F: Strong scientific evidence against this use (it likely does not work).

Tradition/Theory

The below uses are based on tradition or scientific theories. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious and should be evaluated by a qualified health care professional.

Dosing

The below doses are based on scientific research, publications, traditional use, or expert opinion. Many herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested, and safety and effectiveness may not be proven. Brands may be made differently, with variable ingredients, even within the same brand. The below doses may not apply to all products. You should read product labels, and discuss doses with a qualified healthcare provider before starting therapy.

Adults (18 years and older):

  • There is no proven safe or effective dose for skunk cabbage. In general, 0.5-1 milligrams of powdered rhizome/root, three times daily mixed with honey or by infusion or decoction has been traditionally used. A liquid extract (1:1 in 25% alcohol) 0.5-1 milliliters or tincture (1:10 in 45% alcohol) 2-4 milliliters three times daily has also been traditionally used.

Children (younger than 18 years):

  • There is no proven safe or effective dose for skunk cabbage in children, and use is not recommended.

Safety

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.

Allergies

  • Avoid in individuals with a known allergy or hypersensitivity to skunk cabbage (Symplocarpusfoetidus) or any of its constituents. When applied on the skin, the fresh plant may cause severe itching, inflammation, and blistering. Skin hives, rash, and itchy or swollen skin have been reported.

Side Effects and Warnings

  • Skunk cabbage is possibly safe when used as food and taken by mouth as boiled leaves, roots, and stalks.

  • Large amounts of skunk cabbage taken by mouth may cause nausea, vomiting, headache, vertigo, and dimness of vision. It may aggravate gastrointestinal ulcers, gastrointestinal inflammation or cause irritation, abdominal cramps, burning, blistering in the mouth and throat, colic, and watery or bloody diarrhea. When applied on the skin, the fresh plant may cause severe itching, inflammation, and blistering. Skin hives, rash, and itchy or swollen skin have been reported. Skunk cabbage may alter the menstrual cycle; uterine contractions due to irritant properties have been reported. Breathing problems, tightness in the throat or chest, and chest pain have also been reported with use of skunk cabbage.

  • Skunk cabbage should be used cautiously in individuals with a history of oxalate kidney stones, as the calcium oxalate in the plant may irritate the kidney or promote kidney stones in sensitive individuals. Also use cautiously in patients with gastrointestinal ulcers, inflammation or irritation, as skunk cabbage may aggravate these conditions.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

  • Skunk cabbage is not recommended in pregnant or breastfeeding women due to a lack of available scientific evidence. Skunk cabbage may alter the menstrual cycle; uterine contractions may occur due to irritant properties.

Interactions

Most herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested for interactions with other herbs, supplements, drugs, or foods. The interactions listed below are based on reports in scientific publications, laboratory experiments, or traditional use. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy.

Interactions with Drugs

  • Skunk cabbage may cause drowsiness or increase the risk of drowsiness caused by some drugs. Examples include benzodiazepines such lorazepam (Ativan®) or diazepam (Valium®), barbiturates such as phenoarbital, narcotics such as codeine, some antidepressants and alcohol. Caution is advised while driving or operating machinery.

Interactions with Herbs and Dietary Supplements

  • Due to the oxalate content of skunk cabbage, concomitant use may reduce mineral absorption of iron, calcium or zinc. Caution is advised.

  • Skunk cabbage may cause drowsiness or increase the amount of drowsiness caused by some herbs or supplements. Caution is advised while driving or operating machinery.

Author Information

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).

Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.

  1. Berthold DA, Fluke DJ, Siedow JN. Determination of molecular mass of the aroid alternative oxidase by radiation-inactivation analysis. Biochem.J 5-15-1988;252(1):73-77. View Abstract

  2. Berthold DA, Siedow JN. Partial purification of the cyanide-resistant alternative oxidase of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) mitochondria. Plant Physiol 1993;101(1):113-119. View Abstract

  3. Bown D. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses. 1995.

  4. Chevallier A. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. 1996.

  5. Ito T, Ito K. Nonlinear dynamics of homeothermic temperature control in skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. Phys Rev E Stat.Nonlin.Soft.Matter Phys 2005;72(5 Pt 1):051909. View Abstract

  6. Onda Y, Ito K. Changes in the composition of xylem sap during development of the spadix of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Biosci.Biotechnol.Biochem. 2005;69(6):1156-1161. View Abstract

  7. Weiner MA. Earth Medicine, Earth Food. 1980.

  8. Whang WK, Lee MT. New flavonol glycosides from leaves of Symplocarpus renifolius. Arch Pharm Res 1999;22(4):423-429. View Abstract

Copyright © 2013 Natural Standard (www.naturalstandard.com)

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.

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