Ode to Skunk Cabbage: Lessons from the Swamp

Updated: Apr 16

It never ceases to amaze how plants will find you at just the right time. Skunk Cabbage has held me captivated since the first time I learned about it. I’ll never forget; I was sitting in organoleptics class with Lisa Ganora as she told the story of being a young, bold herbalist and taking a taste of Skunk Cabbage leaves. “Electrified cactus needles,” I believe was how she described the sensation. Ever since then, I’ve come back to this plant over and over, and each time I learn something new that exceeds my expectations and pushes the limits of my understanding of plants.

Skunk Cabbage is easily overlooked by many; its flowers are hardly recognizable as such, often camouflaged amongst dark mud, and its large green leaves showy but not particularly alluring. It is not popular in modern herbal practice and is far from adored by wild foodies. Symplocarpus foetidus has many names, none of which make it sound particularly enchanting: Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage, Swamp Lantern, Clumpfoot Cabbage, or Foetid Pothos. Foetidus comes from the greek word "stinking." Given its reputation as “that plant that smells like a Skunk,” it’s easy to see why Skunk cabbage does not quickly become one’s favorite plant at first introduction. But once you get the chance to meet it up close, you’ll find that there is really nothing ordinary about this plant.

S. foetidus is in the Araceae family, a rather unique monocotyledonous family characterized by plants that have a spathe & spadix inflorescence. In S. foetidus, these flowers sprout from the ground in late winter and early spring before the leaves appear. The spathe is this purple-brownish alien looking modified bract that partially envelopes the spadix, which is a pink-tinged spiked inflorescence of petal-less flowers. You’ll often find little puddles of pollen at the bottom of the spathe. These flowers emit a strong sulfurous odor, which attracts pollinators such as flies and beetles.

A Skunk Cabbage Flower

S. foetidus is one of several thermogenic plants in the Araceae family. It produces its own heat through cellular respiration (utilizing oxygen to break down starch; the same physiological process that mammals use to create heat). It can reach the temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This gives Skunk Cabbage the advantage of being able to push through the ground very early in the year (as early as February) without damage to its tissues. Early pollinators such as beetles are attracted to the heat, and it pronounces that sulfurous odor to attract pollinators such as blowflies, which seek out the smell of rotting flesh for which lay their eggs in. If you ever happen upon a patch of Skunk Cabbage very early in the year when there is still snow on the ground, you may find that the snow around it has melted. Dip your hand in the ground around it and you’ll find the mud oddly tepid.

Skunk Cabbage Spadix

As the flowers decompose, broadly cordate leaves begin to unfurl from a basal rosette. In this stage the plant can reach up to 3’ tall at maturity. Being monocotyledons, you would expect them to have parallel venation, but remember what I said earlier - there is nothing ordinary about Skunk Cabbage. The leaves have pronounced netted pinnate venation.

The leaves are edible in their immature, unfurled stage, but only after careful preparation. S. foetidus is high in calcium oxalate crystals and will cause severe pain and poisoning if ingested raw. Boiling and drying both reduce the concentration of oxalates. I’m not going to share the specific preparation for eating the leaves here as it isn’t something I’ve tried personally.

S. foetidus can make up to 90% of a black bear’s diet after emerging from hibernation. Early spring fodder for bears is often referred to as “bear medicine.” Bear medicines have the characteristics of being warming, stimulating, circulatory, and expectorant; perfect for an animal that needs to reawaken its metabolism and clear out its lungs after their long winter slumber. Skunk Cabbage has the same effect on people; the root is a primary Native American remedy. It is a stimulating expectorant, especially good at helping to expel stuck mucus from the lungs. Antispasmodic and nervine, it helps relax conditions of spasticity. Plants often grow in the environment they treat; it is no coincidence that Skunk Cabbage grows in thick, occlusive mud and interfaces with our body in such a way as to dispel damp, cold conditions of the respiratory tract. It is traditionally prepared by drying the roots and then decocting them in simmering water. Careful heedence must be paid to preparation and dose, so I recommend using it under the supervision of a qualified herbalist. Too high a dose will lead to gastrointestinal disturbances such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramping.

If Skunk Cabbage is a plant you feel called to work with, I urge you to seriously consider your need before you harvest. A single Skunk Cabbage plant can live to be over 1,000 years old, but dried skunk cabbage root has a shelf life of only a couple years. It is one that many of us may need in coming times, but perhaps more of us may find the healing we need from sitting with it. It is a sacred plant - a gatekeeper to the underworld; to the womb of knowledge. It is a container of wisdom of birth, life, and death and the transition between them all. Its affinity for the lungs, the heart, and the kidneys are indicative of protection and transformation through interface with the physical world. It is a potent ally for the grief process, and a strong companion for shadow work. This is a plant that will shift your consciousness if you work with it, and will make you question the reality which society has presented to us - one where plants are considered lesser beings. Its captivating strangeness feels alien and yet so very familiar. Symplocarpus foetidus is a wise and powerful teacher.

He who wanders into the swamp

Seeking secrets beneath the mud

It's body full and dark and wet

The place from which life comes forth

And to where it returns

Where water meets earth

And cold meets warmth

Where the earth springs forth lungs of green

Stinking of both life

And of death

On his journey, the Swamp Lantern lights the path

Let his eyes rest in dark places, and he will see more than he ever saw in the light

Located in South Central Pennsylvania