Ictodes foetidus. Skunk Cabbage.
THIS is one of our most noticeable plants, both from the frequency of its occurrence and the peculiarity of its sensible properties. Scarcely a swamp or meadow is found in the middle and northern parts of the United States in which this vegetable may not be discovered at a distance, especially in the spring season, by its large tufts of rank, crowded leaves. Its singular flowers are among the first which break from the ground, after the rigours of winter, appearing in different latitudes, from February to April. The vegetation is rapid, so that in most instances the fruit is ripe and the leaves wholly decayed before the end of August. From this precocity of the plant together with the depth to which the roots penetrate the earth, it seems calculated to bear the cold of high latitudes. I have found the flowers a second time formed, and shooting from the ground in November. The strong and unpleasant odour which every part of the plant emits on being broken, and which is precisely similar to that of the Viverra mephitis; has given it by an almost common consent, in every part of the country, the appellations of Skunk weed and Skunk cabbage.
The structure of this singular vegetable has caused it successively to be assigned to the genera Arum, Dracontium and Pothos, with none of which it fully agrees. Of the Aroideae, to which it is related, it approaches most nearly in its flower to Pothos; while its fruit has more affinity to Orontium. The Rev. Dr. Cutler many years ago, in the Transactions of the American Academy, pointed out the distinctive characters of this plant, and pronounced it a new genus. No name, however, substantiated by a character, has to my knowledge been given it, in any botanical work, except the name of Symplocarpus, a term lately adopted by some American botanists on the alleged authority of Mr. Salisbury. As this name by its etymology implies a resemblance of the fruit to Symplocos, a genus with which the plant has not the least affinity; it appears to me inadmissible. Although I am averse to multiply the confusion of synonyms, with which our science is already too much burdened, yet in the present instance an appropriate name, which should not be at variance with the character of the plant, appeared to be required. With the advice of the venerable Dr. Cutler, I have translated, as nearly as possible, the common English appellation for the plant. The name Ictodes from viverra, and oleo; is sufficiently expressive of the property from which its common name is derived.
The genus Ictodes has for its character a hooded spathe, spadix covered with perfect flowers, calyx with four segments, petals none, style pyramidal, seeds immersed in the spadix. Only the present plant can be assigned to this genus. It belongs to Tetrandria, monogynia; and is found among the Piperitae of Linnaeus and Aroidea of Jussieu. The root is large and abrupt, with numerous, crowded, fleshy fibres. The spathe which emerges from the ground some time before the leaves, is ovate, swelling, various in width, cucullate, spotted and sometimes nearly covered with dull brownish purple, the top acuminate and incurved, the edges infolded, auriculate at base, and at length coalescing. Within this is the oval spadix, on a short peduncle, covered with perfect tetrandrous flowers, and of the same colour with the spathe. Calyx leaves four, fleshy, wedge shaped, truncate, the top and edges inflected, the whole crowded together so as to form a compact covering for the spadix. Stamens four, opposite the calyx leaves, with subulate filaments equal in length to the calyx, and oblong four celled anthers. Style four sided, tapering; stigma minute, pubescent; germ roundish, 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 round, fleshy seed, as large as a pea, white, tinged with green and purple, invested with a separate membranous coat, and with a prominent corculum situated in a depression at top.
The leaves which spring up some time after the flowers are numerous, large and crowded, oblong heart shaped, acute, smooth, with numerous fleshy veins of a paler colour. They spring from the root on long petioles, hollowed in front, and furnished with large oblong sheaths. They continue to increase in size for a month or two after the flowering period is past.
Mr. Nuttall, who has observed the germination of this plant, informs us that the seed does not appear to possesss any other cotyledon, than a sheathing stipule, similar to that which is afterwards produced in the plant. The principle bulk of the seed is formed by what he considers a vitellus, having the embryo exactly resembling the future plant, situated in an umbilical depression at its top. The attachment of this body to the embryo is at first by a minute funiculus, which enlarges and becomes more distinct during the progress of germination; but the most singular circumstance respecting it is the length of time for which it continues attached to the growing plant, apparently inert at the base of the candex for twelve or even eighteen months.
The offensive and powerful odour which characterizes this plant is not peculiar to it. The fruit of some of the North American currants, and particularly Ribes rigens of Michaux, a species often met with on the high mountains of the Eastern States; emits when bruised a scent exactly similar to this vegetable.
The odour of the Ictodes resides in a principle which is extremely volatile. I have not been able to separate it by distillation from any part of the plant, the decoction and the distilled water being in my experiments but slightly impregnated with its sensible character. Alcohol, digested on the plant, retains its odour for a time, but this is soon dissipated by exposure to the air.
An acrid principle exists in the root even when perfectly dry, producing an effect like that of the Arum and Ranunculi. When chewed in the mouth, the root is slow in manifesting its peculiar taste; but after some moments, a pricking sensation is felt, which soon amounts to a disagreeable smarting, and continues for some time. This acrimony is readily dissipated by heat. The decoction retains none of it. The distilled water is impregnated with it, if the process be carefully conducted, but loses it on standing a short time.
A resinous substance is dislodged from the alcoholic solution of the root by the addition of water, the solution becoming moderately turbid. A gummy or mucous principle is also present, and fills the mouth with mucilage when the root is chewed. It is separated from the decoction in small flocculi when alcohol is added.
The spadix consists of a fleshy cellular substance, which shrinks very much in drying. The seeds when dry are reduced to half their former size, and in this state they have a tough waxy consistence and an animal odour. They contain fixed oil in abundance, which is easily forced out from them by expression. Their principal bulk appears to be albumen, and when reduced to powder they are less easily soluble in boiling water, than grains which are less oleaginous. They burn with an oily smoke, leaving behind a large coal.
The sensible properties of the Ictodes having a strong affinity with those of assafoetida and the other foetid gums, practitioners have been led to expect from it a similar antispasmodic power. Experience has justified these expectations in a variety of disorders of the spasmodic and nervous kind. The Rev. Dr. Cutler of Massachusetts was the first who recommended its use in asthmatic cases. In his account of indigenous American vegetables, he tells us that the roots dried and powdered form an excellent remedy in asthma, and often give relief when other means prove ineffectual. It may be given, he says, with safety to children as well as adults; to the former in doses of four, five or six grains, and to the latter in doses of twenty grains and upward. In a private letter he states, that he made use of it in his own case of asthma for several years, and generally found relief. In the winter he used the dried root in powder, and in summer, the fresh grated root. It continued to afford more relief than any other remedy, so long as the paroxysms remained under the influence of any medicine. Since the recommendation of Dr. Cutler, many country physicians have employed the root in asthma, catarrh and chronic coughs, with evident benefit. A number of cases have fallen under my own observation of the catarrh affections of old people, in which a syrup prepared from the root in substance has alleviated and removed the complaint. Dr. Thacher informs us on various authorities, that the powdered root has given immediate relief in hysteric paroxysm, that it has affected the cure of dropsy, and that rheumatic patients have found great benefit from its use. Its strong and penetrating acrimony would lead us, a priori, to expect advantage from it in these complaints. Even in the more formidable disease of epilepsy, it has appeared to do good.
Some caution, however, is requisite in its management, as serious inconvenience may ensue from an over dose. In delicate stomachs I have found it frequently to occasion vomiting even in a small quantity. In several cases of gastrodynia where it was given with a view to its antispasmodic effect, it was ejected from the stomach more speedily than common cathartic medicines. I have known it in a dose of thirty grains to bring on not only vomiting, but headach, vertigo and temporary blindness. Other practitioners have given it in larger quantities without any evil of this kind, but I think such an exemption must be attributed to the age and deteriorated quality of the root. Its active ingredients being more or less volatile, it must necessarily be impaired in strength by long keeping, especially in a pulverized state.
To insure a tolerably uniform activity of this medicine, the root should be kept in dried slices and not reduced to powder until it is wanted for use. It may then be taken in pills or mixed with syrup in doses of from ten to twenty grains. These may in most instances be repeated three times a day.
Arum Americamim, Catesby, Car. ii. t. 71.
Dracontium foetidura, Lin. Syst. pl.
Willd. ii. 288.
Pothos foetida, Michaux, Amer. ii. 186.
Pursh, ii. 398.
Bot. Mag. 836.
Symplocarpus foetida, Nuttall, genera, i. 105.
Cutler, Trans. Amer. Acad. i, 407.
Thacher, Dispensatory, 150.