Symplocarpus Foetida. Skunk-Cabbage.

Botanical name: 

Table 10. Symplocarpus foetida. Swamp-Cabbage. Skunk-weed. Stinking Pothos. Polecat-weed. Itch-weed. Hellebore. Ellebore. Irish Cabbage. Poke. Cow-Collard. Polecat-Collard. Byorn-blad (or Bear's-leaf), and Byorn-retter (Bear's-foot), of the Swedes who settled in North America.
BeerenworteL Bonsemkruid, (according to Shoepf.)

Stinkende Zehrwurtz. Germ. (Willd.)

Anhängsel; Holl. Hangbast; Eine gattung pflanzen, deren arten in beyden Indien einheimisch sind; folgende sind zu bemerken: a) scandens; Appendix arborum Rumph; Das Anhängsel der Bäume; Holl. Aanhangzel der boomen; Ceilan. Potha; Malab. Ana-parua; Cochinch. Cay Ray leo; Mit den dickeren ranken steigt dies gewächs die bäume hinauf, und lässt die übrigen ranken herabhängen; trägt kleine, rothe, saftige, essbare beeren; Die Indianer nennen diese und andre Anhängsel der bäume: Tapanawa; b) acaulit; Planta innominata Plum; Auf Martinique, wo sie von den Einwohnern Queue de rat genannt wird; c) pinnata; Appendix laciniata Rumph.

Praecordia; a) Die sammtlichen Eingeweide der Brust; Griech. Phrenes; b) Die Gegend der Herzgrube. Die vordere Gegend des Oberleibes; c) Die Gegend unter den kurzen Rippen und dem schwerdförmigen Knorpel des Brustbeins. (Polyglot. Lexicon.)

Symplocarpus foetida, Salisbury.
Lin. Sp. Pl. p. 1372.
Willd. Sp. Pl. vol. 2. p. 288.
Shoepf. Mat. Med Am. p. 133.
Castiglioni, viagg. 2. p 238, 239.
Gmelin. Syst. Nat vol. 2. p. 596.
Thornt. Illus.
Mich. Fl. Boreal. Am. vol. 2. p. 186.
Cold. Noveb. 214.
Lin. Amoen. n. p. 362.
Catesb. Car II. t. 71.
Clayt. n. 17.
Ait. Hort. Kew. vol. 3. p. 319. ed. 2d. vol. 1. p. 268.
Bot. Mag. 836.
Barton's Fl. Virg. Gron. p. 60; Elements of Botany, part 3. p. 128, 130.
Pers. Syn. Pl. vol. 1. p. 147.
Kalm. it. 3. p. 47.
Gron. Virg. 141, et 186.
Houttyun. Lin. Pfl. Syst. 10. p. 151.
Pursh. Pl. Am Sep. vol. 2. p. 398.
Nuttall, Gen. Am. Plants, p. 105.
Barton's Prodr. Fl. Ph. p. 26.
Thatcher's Disp. ed. 2d. p. 150.
Coxe's Disp. 3d. ed. p. 210.



Spatha ventricose-ovate, acuminate. Spadix roundish, covered with hermaphrodite flowers. Calix deeply 4-parted, persistent, segments cucullate, truncate, becoming thick and spongy. Petals 0. Style pyramidal, 4-sided; Stigma simple, minute. Seeds solitary, immersed in the spongy receptacle.

Cal. Communis, Spatha atro-purpurea, acuminata, ad basin, convoluta, citissime marcescens et contabescens. Partialis quadriphyllus, foliolis crassis succulentis, fuscis, brevibus, acuminatis, excavatis, inflexis, longitudine styli, persistentibus.

Cor. nulla. Spadix ovato-orbiculatus, pedunculatus, spatha dimidio brevior, staminibus foliolisque calicls undique obsitus, per maturitatem in limbum procumbens.

Stam. Filamenta quatuor, erecta, longitudine styli persistentia. Antherae flavae erectae.

Pist. Germen rotundum infra stylum in spadice reconditum. Stylus fuscus, conicus. Stigma obtusum, vix perceptibile.

Sem. Bacca unica, carnosa, globosa, monosperma, extus fusca: in medulla fungosa spadicis plerumque octo vel novem inveniendx. (Bart. Fl. Vir.)

Symplocarpus foetida; acaulis; foliis ovatis cordatis, spadice subgloboso. Mich. Fl. Bor. Am. 2. p. 186.
"Stemless and subaquatic; leaves very large, strongly veined and entire, preceded by conspicuous sheathing stipules; scapes radical, appearing before the leaves; spatha discoloured; calix, style, and filaments persistent, enlarging with the spongy receptacle. Root verticillately fibrous, truncate. Leaves smooth, and green, ovate, cordate, enlarging, protected by large glaucous, spathulatelinguiform, veinless bractes. Spatha ovoid, roundish, cucullate, obliquely acuminate, point coarctate, plaited, involutely auriculate at the base, thick and spongy, livid purple, blotched and spotted with pale-green. Spadix pedunculate, simple, almost spherical. Bractes none. Flowers tessellately imbricate, adnate. Calix 4-parted, divided to the base, segments cucullate, compressed at the apex, emarginated, at length becoming very thick. Petals none. Stamina 4, opposite the divisions of the calix; filaments subulate, flat; anthers exserted, short, oblong-oval, 2-celled. Style thick, quadrangular, acuminated; stigma minute, pubescent, shorter than the stamina.Germ immersed, 1-seeded. Seed naked, large, round, inclosed in the common receptacle. Corculum small, involute, erect, umbilicately attached to a large, solid, carneous perisperm. Nuttall.
Classis Tetrandria, Ordo Monogynia. Lin. Syst.


Dracontium foetidum. Willd. et Lin.
D. foliis subrotundis concavis. Cold. Noveb. Gron. Virg. 141.
D. foetidum, foliis subrotundis. Gmelin. Syst.
Calla aquatilis, odore allii vehemente prxdita. Gron. Virg. 186.
Arum Americanum beta: folio. Catesb. Car.
Pothos Putorii. Barton's Fl. Virg. Gron.
Pothos foetida, foliis cordatis, spadice subgloboso. Ait. Hort. Kew. ed. 1. vol. 3. p. 319.

Pharm. Dracontii Radix.
Qual. Acris, alliacea, nauseosa.
Vis. Incidens, calefaciens, expectorans.
Usus: fol. contrita ad vulnera recentia et ulcera. Tussis consumptiva. Scorbutus et alii morbi radix Ari officin. utilis. Colden. Shoepf. Mat. Med.

Descriptio Uberior.

Planta foetidissima acaulis, et sub floratione aphylla, seu eo tempore folia vix inchoans. Radix pterennis sistens radicularum verticillarum. Radiculae cylindrical longae, albo et fusco annulato-variegatse. Foha qua: post florationem crescunt, magna cordato-ovata sunt, subtus venis conspicue prominentibus; supra quasi exaratis. Costa succulenta infra prominens. In basi foliarum sunt bractex spathu. lato-hnguiformes, glaucae. Spatha ovata, basi auriculato-attenuata, et apice obliquo-acuminata, depressa, cucullata, prorsus purpureo, flavo, et viride picta. Spadix pedunculatus simplex sub-globosus; floribus adnatis. Pet?Ja nulla. Calix 4-partitus, profunde divisus et persistens, segmentibus, cucullatis, apice compressis et emarginatis. Stamina 4; filamentis subulatis persistentibus. An therje exsertst, breves, oblongo-o vales, duarum locuh)rum sistens. Stylus crassus, quadrangulatus, acuminatus persistens; stigma minimum staminibus breve. Scm'ma nuda, magna, velut rotundata, purpureo et flavo variegata, in receptaculo spongioso immersa. Habitat a Canada ad Georgiam tenus, in uliginosis et ad ripas rivulorum. Barton's Fl. Ph. MS.

Not many persons are unacquainted with the Skunk-Cabbage; though few perhaps, have noticed its singular inflorescence. The multitude of large, rank, foetid leaves, which grow from a single root, together with the gregarious habit (if I may use such an expression) of the plant, attract the notice of every one who passes near the swamps and meadows where it grows; but at the period these are conspicuous, the flowers have disappeared.

I have followed Mr. Nuttall, in adopting the generic term Symplocarpus, imposed by Salisbury; [Linnean Transactions.] but not having had access to the volume of the work containing the paper of this gentleman, I have had no opportunity of profiting by the characters on which it was founded.

Symplocarpus foetida is a subaquatic plant, flowering and leafing from the root. The flowers appear before the leaves; or at least when these make their appearance at this time, they are closely convoluted, as represented in the plates. The leaves are preceded by coloured sheathing stipules; and about the end of April or beginning of May, are fully developed, when they are very large. They are commonly twelve, fifteen, and eighteen inches long; and nine or ten broad. I have seen them, in favourable situations, more than two feet long and twelve inches broad. They are oblong-ovate, heart-shaped at the base, smooth, strongly veined, and have a large succulent middle rib, projecting below. The root consists of a vast number of verticillate cylindrical thick fibres, many of which are near a fourth of an inch in diameter. They diverge from their point of cincture, and penetrate the earth or mire, to the depth of two feet, and sometimes more. The fibres are whitish, coloured with brownish-red rings.

The flowers are concealed in a singular spongy ovoid spathe, acuminated and depressed obliquely at the apex, and auriculated at the base; variegated with spots of livid-purple, yellow, lake-green and red. These spathes may not be unaptly compared to some kinds of shells. Upon opening them, the flowers are found situated upon a globose pedunculated spadix. They are destitute of petals; have a 4-parted calix, divided at the base. Segments hooded, flattened, and notched at the apex. There are four stamens, situated opposite to the divisions of the calix, having flat awl-shaped filaments, with short oblong anthers. The style is thick and foursided; stigma shorter than the stamens. The seeds are numerous, large, naked, irregularly roundish, and speckled with purple and yellow. They are immersed in a large spongy receptacle near to the surface, as shewn in the section (fig. 4. plate 10).

Every part of this curious plant, even the seeds, is strongly imbued with the peculiar alliaceous odour, which has given rise to the various vulgar names enumerated at the head of this article, expressive of the obnoxiousness of the plant. I think the odour emanating from the broken spathe and the bruised seeds, resembles exceedingly, the smell of assafoetida. The leaves have, perhaps, a more disagreeable smell than any other part of the plant. Their odour has been compared to that thrown off by the skunk or pole-cat; and, like that, it may be perceived at a considerable distance. The smell from the spathe and flowers, is pungent and very subtle. Experience leads me to believe they possess a great share of acridity; having been seized with a very violent inflammation of my eyes (for the first time in my life) which deprived me of the use of them for a month, by making the original drawings of these plates. The pungency of the plant was probably concentrated by the closeness of the room, in which many specimens were at the time shut up. In the open air, however, the Skunk-cabbage has certainly no pernicious effect; and the tales of its deadly influence on those who approach it, published by Dr. Thornton, in his gorgeous folio, have no better foundation than those of the Upos tree of the East. [It has been reserved for our countryman, Dr. Horsefield, to obliterate from the page of Natural History, the ridiculous fables concerning this tree, which the wickedness and credulity of the world had combined to make current.]

According to the observations of Mr. Nuttall, "the seed of the Symplocarpus does not appear to possess any thing like a proper cotyledon, the embryo formed in the exact posture of the growing plant, (with the radical downwards), differs not from it in any particular but that of size. In place of a cotyledon there is a sheathing stipule similar to that which is ever after produced; in fact it is viviparous. The embryon is seated in a small umbilical or hemispherical depression, in the upper end of what may be called a vitellus rather than a perisperm, judging from its functions; this callus, or seminal tubercle, is roundish and turbinate, nearly as large as a filbert nut, very solid and carneous, possessing in a high degree the alliaceous fsetor of the grown plant; the mutual point of attachment subsisting betwixt this body and the embryon is at first a minute and nearly central funiculus which enlarges and becomes more distinct during the progress of germination; but what appears to be most singular in it, is the length of time which it continues attached to the growing plant, apparently inert at the base of the caudex for twelve or eighteen months."

The Skunk-cabbage is exclusively a native of America, [It was introduced into England by Peter Collinson, Esq. in 1735. It flowers there in March and April, as it does in this country.] and grows in boggy woods and meadows, in swamps, on the margins of brooks and rivulets, and other moist places. Extreme humidity and a rich soil, are necessary to its luxuriant growth; and it appears also to delight in shade. It seldom appears sporadically. Where found at aU, it is generally in abundance.

Medical Properties.

The sensible properties of Symplocarpus foetida, indicate its place in the Materia Medica. Every part of the plant is powerfully antispasmodic, and it is of course referable to that class of medicines. Hitherto the employment of this article has been too much limited; for it seems entitled, from its virtues, to the general attention of physicians. Shoepf long ago mentioned the medicinal powers of the root of the Skunk-cabbage. He speaks of it as an expectorant, and as useful in phthisical coughs. At this time, too, this plant is much used for the same purpose in many parts of the United States; and it is said that great alleviation of the cough is produced by the judicious use of the medicine. The Rev. Dr. Cutler, and others, have given it considerable reputation as a palliative in the paroxysms of asthma; in which it is reputed to have afforded relief, when other means had failed. Thirty or forty grains of the dried pulverised roots, are recommended to be given during the paroxysm, and repeated as often as circumstances may require. After the fit has gone off, it is necessary to persevere in the use of the medicine; its continuance is recommended, till the patient be entirely cured. This practice is said to be imitated from that of the Indians, in the treatment of this complaint. [Thatcher's Disp. ] Dr. Thatcher relates, on the testimony of a correspondent, one case of violent hysteria, in which two teaspoonfulls of the powdered root, given in spirit and water, procured immediate relief. Musk, and other antispasmodics, had been ineffectually tried in this case. On repeating the use of the medicine, it afforded more lasting relief than any other remedy had given. The same writer mentions, on the authority of this correspondent, that when administered in cases of parturition, it relieves the spasms which frequently affect the abdominal muscles. The instances mentioned by Dr. Thatcher of the curative virtue of our plant in chronic and acute rheumatism, deserve further attention; but those dropsical cases hinted at, which he says were relieved by two tea-spoonfulls of the powdered root, are not, I think, of any importance. Indeed, I much doubt whether the cure of dropsy has in any instance been effected by this medicine; neither do its properties justify, for one moment, the belief. The seeds are said to afford more relief in asthmatic cases than the root; and this, I believe very probable, for they are remarkably active, pungent, and, as has before been mentioned, exhale the odour of assafoetida.

The bruised leaves are frequently applied to ulcers and recent wounds, and it is said, with good effect. They are also used as an external application, in cutaneous affections; and I have heard of the expressed juice being successfully applied to different species of herpes. The leaves are used in the country to dress blisters, with the view of promoting their discharge. For this purpose they are slightly bruised, by being laid on a flat board, and having a rollingpin passed a few times over them. This is necessary to reduce the projecting middle rib, nerves, and veins, so as to enable every part of the leaf to come in contact with the surface of the blister. Colden recommends the Skunk-cabbage in scurvy, as well as in all other diseases in which the officinal wake-robin (Arum maculatum), has been found useful. I have had a good deal of experience in this disease; and though I have never used the subject of this article in the treatment of it, I have no hesitation in declaring my disbelief of its usefulness in this distressing complaint. I have not had any experience with this plant for medical purposes, except with the leaves as above-mentioned, to dress blisters. For this purpose I can recommend them, where it is desirable to promote a large and speedy discharge, and no stimulating ointment is at hand. But it is only on the authority of those whom I have quoted, that I invite the notice of physicians to the plant, in the treatment of consumptive cough, asthma, and hysteria. In the latter complaints, its antispasmodic virtues seem to promise some good.

Table X.

Fig. 1. Is a representation of Symplocarpus foetida in flower. The drawing made from a specimen procured in the first week of April.
2. The spadix covered with flowers, brought into view, bycutting away the spathe.
3. A flower magnified, shewing the calix, stamens, and pistil.
4. The fruit divided in half, longitudinally, bringing into view the seeds immersed in the spongy receptacle.

Symplocarpus β Angustispatha. Narrow Spathed Skunk-Cabbage.

Table 11. Symplocarpus var angustispatha. (Symplocarpus Nat. Syst. Juss. Aroideae.)

Symplocarpus β angustispatha: spatha lanceolata, apice lineari-attenuata; ipadice globoso longe peduivculato. Stipulis et foliis inchoatis, purpureo striatis. B.

Descriptio Uberior.

Planta simillima Symplocarpo foetida,et forsan vix ultra varietatem, perquam spatha discrepaiw. Spatha lanceolata, in longum acumen terminens; colore atro-purpurea non maculata. Spadix longe pedunculatus, minor quam in altera specie, et in colore et forma non idem. Folia inchoata virklo et parpureo striata; stipulis virido-purpureis. Habitat cum S. foetida, idem tempore florens. B.

The above variety of the common Skunk-cabbage, I discovered near this city; and I figured the only two specimens found. One of these is represented in the plate, and one of the spathes of the other. It is needless perhaps to remark, that it has an exceedingly close resemblance to the S. foetida. It differs, however, in so many particulars, that I have no hesitation in giving it to the public as a decided variety. It yet remains to be proved by future examinations, whether it can form a legitimate species.

The whole plant is more slender than the common one. The root is somewhat smaller. The spathe is long, narrow, purple, entirely without specks or spots, and of a beautiful shining dark purple colour. The spathes of the specimen not here figured, were narrower than those of plate 1 1; and the smallest of them is separated in fig. 8, plate 11. The young convoluted leaves and stipules are deeply tinged with purple, and somewhat striped with this hue. The spadix is supported by a very long peduncle; is half the size of that in the S. foetida, and of a light umber colour; in the common one it has an ochroleucous hue. The flowers are also smaller than in the Skunk-cabbage. The fruit I have not yet seen.

Medical Properties.

This variety has the same rank, alliaceous odour as the common Skunk-cabbage; and its sensible properties are the same. Consequently its medicinal virtues will be found not to differ.

Table XI.

Fig. 5. The external half of the globose pericarp, or spongy receptacle.
6. A seed.
7. The variety described, page 133, and there called Symplocarpus angustispatha.
8. A spathe severed from the other specimen of this variety which was found with fig. 7.
9. The spadix of fig. 7. covered with flowers.
All the figures of the natural size except fig. 3, plate 10, which, as already mentioned, is magnified.

Vegetable Materia Medica of the U.S. or Medical Botany, 1817 (Vol. I), 1818 (Vol. II), was written by William P. C. Barton, M. D.