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18 November, 2017

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Posted in : Vegetarian Diet on by : Sharmin Begum Tags:

DESCRIPTION: All parts of skunk cabbage smell like a skunk when injured. It’s a great plant to show to kids. They’re usually eager to smell it so they can be repulsed!
The flower, which comes in late winter, before the leaves appear, has a round spadix (its reproductive part), shielded by a mottled, oval spathe.

The flower generates enough heat to melt the snow around it. The heat and foul smell attract the first insects (flies, which like foul smells) of the year to pollinate it.

The leaves, which appear in early spring (they sometimes also appear in late fall, but don’t complete their development) are first wrapped like a scroll.

Skunk Cabbage, Young Leaves and Flower
Photo by “Wildman”
When they open, the long-oval, smooth-edged leaves get as large as 3 feet long.
Mature Skunk Cabbage
pencil drawing

by “Wildman”
In mid-summer, an inconspicuous, low, flattened, green, egg-shaped fruit, 2 to 3 inches across, its surface convoluted like a brain, appears in the mud. It turns black as it matures
Skunk Cabbage Fruit
photo by “Wildman”
Inside, a circle of 10-14 roughly globular seeds line the periphery.
Skunk Cabbage Fruit, split lengthwise
photo by “Wildman”
Caution: The deadly poisonous plant, false hellebore (Veratrum viride), superficially resembles skunk cabbage, and the plants often grow side by side.
The differences are that false hellebore leaves have prominent parallel veins which make the leaves look pleated, while skunk cabbage’s have inconspicuous branching veins. Also, false hellebore has no odor.

Nevertheless, people have mistaken false hellebore for skunk cabbage, eaten this highly toxic plant, and died. Although a strong cardiac stimulant has been made from the roots, the plant causes salivation, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, prostration, depressed heart action, general paralysis, difficulty breathing, spasms, and death.

False Hellebore
photo by “Wildman”
HABITAT: Skunk cabbage grows in dense stands in wet woods and swamps, where it’s very plentiful.
Skunk Cabbage, Mature Plants
photo by “Wildman”
I was once leading a walk through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx when we case across skunk cabbage in a swampy area. When I identified it, one member of our expedition became very excited and plopped into the swamp after it. This owner of a well-known New York City herb and spice shop, he hadn’t been able to get skunk cabbage root from his suppliers, even though some of his customers were demanding this herb.
Skunk Cabbage, Mature Plant
photo by “Wildman”
Since the tour was almost over, he suggested that we finish without him. We left him digging frantically, knee-deep in mud. On the way out of the park, we noticed an abundance of skunk cabbage all along the relatively dry path. I hope our soggy herbalist chose another way out of the park and didn’t notice he could have had a much easier time collecting this herb.

The moral to this story is that you should examine the entire distribution of a plant you’ve just found before you start to collect. Then, you’ll be able to pick where the plant it’s in it greatest abundance, where you won’t have to sort out grass and twigs, where you won’t have to deal with poison ivy, and where you won’t have to dive into a swamp.

SEASON: You can use skunk cabbage leaves in early spring, although after you read about what a problem this plant can be, you may not want to.

FOOD USES: Skunk cabbage leaves are marginally edible. Even though the plant is very common, it’s hardly worth the effort. It contains calcium oxalate crystals, which cause the must unpleasant burning sensation in your mouth and tong. Boiling does not dispel this quality.

I’ve had skunk cabbage leaves in my food dryer for a week (Lee Peterson, in his Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, claims that only thorough drying will make skunk cabbage edible), then I simmered them in a huge pot of chili with lots of other vegetables. I finally dispelled the calcium oxylate crystals from the skunk cabbage — unfortunately, they went into the chili!

I wound up cursing out Peterson for an hour before the burning and stinging of my tongue and mouth, caused by one bite of the chili (which I quickly spit out) abated. I then flushed the entire recipe down the toilet, and the plumbing’s never been the same since.

The reason skunk cabbage is even included in this book is to head off readers who’ve been misinformed about its edibility, and who insist on using. If you’re still determined to use this plant, you can try air drying it for 6 months, after which it tastes like paper (a vast improvement!)

FEATURED RECIPE: The day you bring home skunk cabbage is the time to eat dinner out. If you find skunk cabbage, leave it for the skunks!

MEDICINAL USES: An ointment made by boiling skunk cabbage in fat or oil is supposed to be good for ringworm (a fungus infection of the skin), as well as sores and swellings. I’d be willing to try this plant externally, but I’ll let someone else swallow the tea made from the roots or seeds first.

Such an infusion is supposed to have antispasmodic properties, act as a diaphoretic to induce sweating, help bring up phlegm, and act as a narcotic for asthma. It’s supposed to be good for arthritis, chorea, hysteria, edema, epilepsy, and convulsions in pregnancy and labor. I could be wrong, but greatly I doubt that all these claims will be born out.

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