SKUNK CABBAGE IS A VERY INTERESTING and unusual plant and goes by several names, including clumpfoot cabbage, foetid pothos, meadow cabbage, polecat weed, or swamp cabbage. Its official Latin name is Symplocarpus foetidus. The association with skunk comes from the smell of the leaves which, when torn, give off the familiar odor of skunk.
Chemically the smell derives from sulfur containing compounds called thiols, which combine to form mercaptan. Skunk cabbage can be found growing in wetlands over a wide range of eastern North America from Nova Scotia all the way down to North Carolina and Tennessee. A most unusual characteristic is its production of strange flowers. The first time I encountered them was during a bird watching trip with my mother and friends at a marshy area near Ghent. They seemed a horrible looking life form, like spotty maroon claws coming up out of the muck and ooze of the swamp. Childhood imagination is wonderful, and the memory still produces this feeling every time they are encountered in late winter or early spring.
Father forbade mother, the plant collector, from bringing any to our dairy farm. He made a wise decision because the plants grow to form huge rhizomes that go very deep and are basically impossible to dig up and remove. Eventually they take over a large area, reproducing from seeds, and forcing out more desirable plants eaten by cattle and wildlife.
Twenty years ago, a sighting of skunk cabbage was made in late February in Rensselaer County in an icy, snow covered ditch. This was the first personal observation of the plant’s property of thermogenesis, or heat production, and again reinforced the impression that some hideous monster lurked below ground. The snow and ice had melted making a clear ring of green grass around each clump of the claw-like spathes. The skunk cabbage spathe is a pointed green/maroon spotted hood around the spadix, a stem of tiny yellow flowers. The air was cold, and you could see heat waves radiating from the plants. The whole unit was about 4-6” tall and several formed clumps, like submerged “hands.” These plants can produce a temperature of about 60-95 degrees Fahrenheit, and the heat and “skunky” aroma attracts flies and early emerging insects that pollinate the flowers. It is thought that the insects enjoy the warmth and shelter inside the spathe.
Native Americans must have observed these events for they thought the plant had magical powers. They used the plant for medicines and as a magical talisman. There is a claim that skunk cabbage is edible if it is properly dried and cooked. The raw leaves contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves), which is harmful to eat, and the juice may cause blisters and burning sensations. This has not made them an appealing food source for me, and probably best not to try it, or consult an experienced herbalist or botanist.
Another problem is the skunk cabbage leaves are very similar to the deadly poisonous false hellebore plant. The difference is that the leaf veins are parallel in false hellebore, and the veins branch in the skunk cabbage. Later in spring the beautiful green leaves of the skunk cabbage emerge, unfold, and take on its cabbage form. They really make a swamp look pretty and add a nice contrast of color and form. Some people use them in water garden settings for this purpose. This is a very interesting plant to observe, and there are still some spathes visible in cool marshy areas around our area, as well as the just emerging and unfolding plant leaves. Nature offers so many wonderful things. We just need to take some time to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, if you dare, the skunk cabbage.