Chapter 30. Swamp Plants.

Botanical name: 

Skunk-Cabbage. Symplocarpus foetidum L.

Fig. 76. Symplocarpus. OTHER COMMON NAMES—Dracontium, skunk-weed, polecat-weed, swamp-cabbage, meadow-cabbage, collard, fetid hellebore, stinking poke, pockweed.

HABITAT AND RANGE—Swamps and other wet places from Canada to Florida, Iowa and Minnesota abound with this ill-smelling herb.

DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—Most of the common names applied to this plant, as well as the scientific names, are indicative of the most striking characteristic of this early spring visitor, namely, the rank, offensive, carrion odor that emanates from it. Skunk-Cabbage is one of the very earliest of our spring flowers, appearing in February or March, but it is safe to say that it is not likely to suffer extermination at the hand of the enthusiastic gatherer of spring flowers. In the latitude of Washington Skunk-Cabbage has been known to be in flower in December.

It is a curious plant, with its hood shaped, purplish striped flowers appearing before the leaves. It belongs to the arum family (Araceae) and is a perennial. The "flower" is in the form of a thick, ovate, swollen spathe, about 3 to 6 inches in height, the top pointed and curved inward, spotted and striped with purple and yellowish green. The spathe is not like that of the wild turnip or calla lily, to which family this plant also belongs, but the edges are rolled inward, completely hiding the spadix. In this plant the spadix is not spike-like, as in the wild turnip, but is generally somewhat globular, entirely covered with numerous, dull-purple flowers. After the fruit has ripened the spadix will be found to have grown considerably, the spathe meantime having decayed.

The leaves, which appear after the flower, are numerous and very large, about 1 to 3 feet in length and about 1 foot in width; they are thin in texture, but prominently nerved with fleshy nerves, and are borne on deeply channeled stems,

DESCRIPTION OF ROOTSTOCK—Skunk-Cabbage has a thick, straight, reddish brown rootstock, from 3 to 5 inches long, and about 2 inches in diameter, and having a whorl of crowded fleshy roots which penetrate the soil to considerable depth. The dried article of commerce consists of either the entire rootstock and roots, which are dark brown and wrinkled within, or of very much compressed, wrinkled, transverse slices.

When bruised, the root has the characteristic fetid odor of the plant and possesses a sharp acrid taste, both of which become less the longer the root is kept.

COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—The rootstock of Skunk-Cabbage are collected early in spring, soon after the appearance of the flower, or after the seeds have ripened, in August or September. It should be carefully dried, either in its entire state or deprived of the roots and cut into transverse slices. Skunk-Cabbage loses its odor and acridity with age, and should therefore not be kept longer than one season. The range of prices is from 4 to 7 cents a pound.

Skunk-Cabbage, official from 1820 to 1880, is used in affections of the respiratory organs, in nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsical complaints.

Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.