There’s that smell again! More things you didn’t know you wanted to know about skunk cabbage

Digital Originals

YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — What a difference a month can make.

In March, we paid a visit to a little patch of bogland in York County. The reason? Skunk cabbage was sprouting. These plants, which thrive in damp (really damp!) soil, were just pushing their flowers out of the ground and attracting pollinating insects with their somewhat-less-than-pleasant odor. (Opinions differ on whether it smells more like skunk, or rotting carrion.)

A month later, things look a bit different. It’s time to put on the rubber boots and spend some more quality time in the bog.

An area that last month was all dull, lifeless looking shades of grey, yellow and brown is now bright green–and it’s mostly skunk cabbage. The plants are past their pollination stage and settled into the task of making and storing nutrients in their extensive root systems for next winter. They put out broad green leaves which can grow two feet long, and a foot wide. At this time of year, it’s clear where the “cabbage” part of their name comes from.

Skunk cabbage has many names: meadow cabbage, clump foot cabbage, bear weed, hermit of the bog, polecat weed, swamp cabbage and swamp lantern. Its scientific name is Symplocarpus foetidus. “Symplocarpus” merges two Greek words, “symplokos” which means “connected”, and “karpos”, or “fruit”, which refers to the plant producing fruit clusters. “Foetidus”, as you’ve probably already guessed, means “foul-smelling”.

Skunk cabbages are perennial plants, but no one really seems to know how long they live. Estimates range from just a few years to thousands. We do know the plant family that it’s part of, the Araceae or Arum, first appears in fossils from the Cretaceous period. (This family has over 3700 known species, mostly in the tropics.)

Skunk cabbage has been used for centuries to treat an amazing variety of ailments, everything from asthma to epilepsy to snakebite to whooping cough. In the 19th century, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia listed eastern skunk cabbage as the drug “dracontium”. Unfortunately, there have been few, if any, scientific studies done to find out if these treatments actually work.

One thing we know for sure–skunk cabbage is poisonous. It contains large amounts of calcium oxalate. Eating it can cause painful burning sensations in the mouth and throat, swelling, choking, and even death.

Ironically, calcium oxalate is found in many plants we consider healthy eating. The amounts are small enough that our bodies can filter them out. Sometimes, though, the oxalate will form kidney stones. (If you think the pictures in the video look nasty, you should see the ones with the spikes. Not for the faint of heart…)

Just as skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to blossom in the spring, it’s one of the first to wrap up its growing season. By early summer, as the weather turns hot and dry, the green leaves start rotting away, and by August the skunk cabbages are back in the ground, waiting out fall and winter before reappearing next spring.

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