The rhizome, roots and seeds of Dracontium foetidum, Linné (Ictodes foetidus, Bigelow; Pothos foetida, Michaux; Symplocarpus foetidus, Salisbury).
COMMON NAMES: Skunk-cabbage, Skunk-weed, Meadow-cabbage, Polecat-weed, Foetid hellebore.
ILLUSTRATlONS: Millspaugh's Amer. Med. Plants, Plate 169; Meehan's Native Flowers and Ferns, Vol. I, Plate 15.
Botanical Source.—Skunk-cabbage is a perennial plant, having a large, abrupt root or tuber, with numerous, crowded, verticillate, fleshy fibers, which extend some distance into the ground. The spathe, which appears before the leaves, is ovate, turgid, various in width, cucullate, spotted and striped with purple and yellowish-green, the top acuminate and incurved, the edges folded inward, auriculate at the base and at length coalescing. The flowers are dull-purple, tetrandrous, numerous, and situated within the spathe on an oval or subglobose, short pedunculated spadix. The calyx consists of 4 fleshy, wedge-shaped, truncate sepals, having the top and edges inflected. Corolla none. Stamens 4, opposite the sepals, with subulate filaments equal in length to the calyx; and oblong, exserted, 2-celled anthers. The style is 4-sided and tapering; the stigma minute and pubescent; the ovary roundish and concealed within the spadix. After the spathe decays, the spadix continues to grow, and with it every part of the flowers except the anthers. When the fruit is ripe, the spadix has attained many times its original dimensions, while the calyx, filaments, and style are larger, very prominent and separated from each other. Within the spadix, at the base of each style, is a naked, round, fleshy seed, as large as a pea, white, tinged with green and purple, invested with a separate membranous coat, and with a prominent embryo situated in a depression at the top, and umbilicately attached to a large, solid perisperm. Sometime following the flowers, numerous large, crowded leaves appear, which are oblong, cordate, acute, and smooth, with numerous fleshy veins of a pale color, and are borne on long, channeled petioles, furnished with large, oblong sheaths, and are of bright-green color, and often 20 inches long by 12 broad (L.—G.—W.).
History.—This plant has been a troublesome one for botanists to dispose of. It has been variously annexed to Ictodes, Dracontium, and Pothos. Salisbury termed it Symplocarpus, a name which is preferred by many botanists. It is indigenous, growing plentifully in various parts of the United States, in moist grounds, flowering in March and April, and maturing its fruit in August and September. It forms a roughened globular mass, 2 or 3 inches in diameter, in decay shedding the bulblet-like seeds, which are 1/3 to 1/2 an inch in diameter, and filled with the singular, solid, fleshy embryo (G.). The whole plant has an extremely disagreeable odor, resembling the commingled odors of skunk and onions, which is most apparent when the plant is bruised, and which has given rise to the several names of Skunk-cabbage, Skunk-weed, Polecat-weed, and Meadow-cabbage. The parts used are the rhizome, with its rootlets, and the seeds. The rhizome should be gathered soon after the appearance of the spathe, or after the seeds have matured in autumn. It has the unpleasant odor of the plant, and, when fresh, a persistent, acrid taste.
Description and Chemical Composition.—As found in commerce the drug is in somewhat cylindrical pieces, 2 inches or more in length, and about 1 inch in diameter, or, more commonly, in tranverse slices, very much compressed and corrugated. Its color externally is dark-brown, and internally whitish, or yellowish white. Drying lessens the odor as well as the acridity of the plant, and age and exposure dissipate them entirely, consequently the root should be renewed annually. The seeds have been used and preferred as being more energetic than the root. They have an exceedingly acrid taste, and emit the fetid odor of the plant only when bruised. They preserve their virtues longer than the root. The properties of this plant are chiefly owing to a volatile substance, which loses its activity by desiccation, and is completely volatilized by subjection to an increased temperature. Alcohol or water extracts its virtues, and the aqueous infusion should be made by displacement. As far as we can ascertain, the only analysis on record of Symplocarpus foetidus is that of Mr. Jos. M. Turner (Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1836, Vol. VIII, pp. 1-10), who found the root to contain besides starch, fixed and volatile oils, "a peculiar substance, soluble in acids and precipitated by alkalies." In the seeds he found starch, gum, resin, albumen, fixed oil, wax, and coloring matter.
Prof. Bastin showed the starch of Symplocarpus foetidus to be so characteristic of the drug as to allow its identification in cases where it is used as an adulterant of commercial Veratrum viride (The Apothecary, 1893, p. 152).
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—In large doses, according to Bigelow, skunk cabbage will cause sickness at stomach, vomiting, headache, dizziness, and impaired vision. In medicinal doses it is a stimulant, exerting expectorant, powerful antispasmodic, and faintly narcotic influences. Its action upon the nervous system is marked, relieving irritation, and it has a tendency to promote normal functional activity of the nervous structures. It has been successfully used in asthma, whooping-cough, nervous irritability, hysteria, epilepsy, and convulsions during pregnancy and labor; likewise in chronic catarrh, pulmonary, and bronchial affections. The powdered root or seed may be given in doses of from 10 to 40 grains, 3 times a day; but the most eligible mode of administration is a saturated tincture of the fresh root, of which 1 or 2 fluid drachms may be given for a dose. It enters into the composition of Acetous Emetic Tincture, Compound Emetic Powder, and several other old Eclectic preparations.