In the Wild ...

Skunk Cabbage

By Mary T. Harrington  

     Although we may recognize many species of wildflower in Westchester, we often know very little about them.  

     This column will feature a plant each month (except July and August), it's history in the immediate area (Southern Westchester) and list some of the more common uses.

    I begin looking for skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in late February and early March. It is probably one of the first wildflowers to send up its blossom. Skunk cabbage, a member of the Arum family, is usually found in swamps, woods and stream borders. Look for a streaked, mottled purple, hood-like spathe enveloping a round, fleshy flower cluster that has a rank and unpleasant odor. The leaves of the plant are large and broad. What is most interesting about this wildflower is that the temperature inside the hood of the spathe is approximately 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This is warm enough to melt the snow and ice often surrounding it as it emerges. Flies primarily pollinate skunk cabbage although is not surprising to find honeybees occasionally within the hood. Honeybees normally donít fly under 65 degrees Fahrenheit. However, if the day is warm enough and the temperature drops quickly as it can in early spring, bees will shelter within the spathe. Skunk cabbage once established is almost impossible to eradicate, surviving up to a century or more in the same area. The roots are large and often grow deeply in the ground. 

            Skunk cabbage root is one of the wild plants that have been called Indian potato. Some Native American tribes were also reported to have boiled the large young leaves. Ingesting this plant without careful preparation can be extremely uncomfortable. This wildflower contains calcium oxalate crystals that produce an intensely acrid, burning sensation if eaten raw. Only a thorough drying mediates this effect.

    Physicians historically considered the root expectorant and antispasmodic. It was used in the treatment of lung disorders and epilepsy. Native Americans used this plant medicinally for numerous internal and external disorders including itching and the flu. Skunk cabbage was used in combination with other herbs to tattoo skin.

    This plant is not commonly a food source for mammals because of the calcium oxalate crystals. Although black bears have been known to dig and eat the rhizomes and young leaves. Ring necked pheasants and local Canada geese utilize the young leaves as a food source, as well.  The seeds are eaten by wood duck, ring necked pheasant, ruffed grouse and bobwhite.

    So while you are out walking this time of year, donít forget to look for the hooded shaped flower of the skunk cabbage. Peek inside, and see what you find waiting in the warmth on a cool spring day.

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