With the common name Skunk Cabbage, who would conceive of this plant holding stature in an ancient botanical family (Araceae) known for some of the most striking plant forms found in new and old-world tropical regions. Side by side with such exotically named specimens as Dragon Lily, Flamingo Flower, Devil’s Tongue, and Golden Pothos, Skunk Cabbage takes its position in this family of plants, within the genus Arum, as one of its few species to dwell in a less than tropical climate such as that of the northeastern United States.
Its range sweeps eastward from northern Ontario and Minnesota across chilly latitudes to the eastern edge of Canada and the United States dropping south only as far as Tennessee and North Carolina. Known as eastern Skunk Cabbage, it’s found in old, undisturbed wetlands. Marshes, swamps, bogs, and the banks of streams and rivers are its home for the ability to keep its roots always wet is the key to its survival.
One of the strengths of this plant lies in its substantial foot-long, 3 to 6-inch-wide root, or rhizome. Expanding and contracting, the rhizome protectively pulls the blooming plant down closer to ground surface, snugly securing it in the wet soil, and with its extensive attached system of long rootlets, assures an upward climb of adequate water to the plant.
It is in late winter, early spring, that Skunk Cabbage begins its 1 to 3-foot aboveground journey. Breaking through soil likely still hardened by freezing temperatures, snow, and ice, a thick, colorfully hooded stalk with tiny petal-less flowers at its tip starts its surge skyward. A process of thermogenesis allows the plant to create heat inside the hood and around the flowers contributing to rapid growth and adding many degrees of warmth to the surrounding air, enough to melt away the remains of winter around its base and at the same time attract early pollinators to its comforting warmth and to its odor made more diffuse by the remarkable degree of heat.
Later in spring, as the flowered stalk dies back, a leaf bud near the base of the plant shoots up and out toward a maximum height of 2 feet, unfurling broad leaves one or more feet wide and as far as 3 to 4 feet outward.
Above ground, the eastern Skunk Cabbage is a watery, fluid plant, its parts spongy and soft. It grows rapidly and dies soon, gone from the wetland scene before summer’s end. Having dissolved gently back into the watery earth and into its obstinate, long-enduring root system, there Skunk Cabbage will brood in the long darkness of cool mud, in its memory of eons of existence, and in its heroic resolve to rise again. An individual plant can live up to 1,000 years.
Out in wetlands among blooming Skunk Cabbage, softly bruise any part of the plant to know of its fetid odor likened to rotting meat as well as skunk and onion. It draws pollinators attracted to carrion. And if you should perhaps not like to be reminded of cabbage, avoid the ocean of cabbage-like green leaves surrounding Skunk Cabbage in the wild. But know of its value to its environment. In wetlands, plants would find it difficult to root and sustain themselves were it not for the support given such soil by Skunk Cabbage’s incredibly stabilizing root system.
The expanding, contracting action of the root of Skunk Cabbage powers its reach through cold, heavy mud as well as its strenuous pull of moisture upward. Here we can liken Skunk Cabbage’s behavior in the wild to that of its behavior in our lungs during respiratory affliction.
The thoroughly dried, and not malodorous, root made into a safely medicinal liquid extract provides an exerting expectorant action in lungs troubled by lingering, thick, deep-seated mucus. Decongesting and strongly anti-spasmodic as well as comfortingly supportive of the nervous system, Skunk Cabbage root stabilizes affected lungs by helping remove old, stuck mucus, relieve irritation and cough, relax airways, and ease breathing. Of particular application is Skunk Cabbage root’s use in conditions of asthma. The strength of asthma’s discomfort is met by the strength of this root.
And so it is, that a plant with the off-putting name of Skunk Cabbage holds its own among some of the finest respiratory herbal medicinals in use just as it holds sway among the members of its family of ancient botanicals.
It has been suggested to dose with a dropperful of the liquid extract two to four times per day between meals. The dose may be put in water.
It has been claimed that large doses may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in the form of stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea as well as headache and dizziness. Appropriately, if under medical supervision, please discuss possibility of the use of this medicinal with your physician(s).
Maria and Ingrid are Co Owners of STL Herbs and Aromatics. They have been working in the field of Herbal and Aromatic Medicine for over twenty years. This blog is intended to inform and empower people to begin utilizing plant medicine for personal health and well being.
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