Pardon the smell: Strange plant signals spring's impending arrival

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, March 23, 2014

If I were in charge of establishing holidays there would be a National Skunk Cabbage Day sometime in early March.

Like the robin, this plant is a harbinger of the coming spring, and such a welcome sight after a long, hard winter is cause for celebration.

As the snow is reduced to scattered patches here and there, we like to hike around the wet areas and look for a small purplish-green plant poking its head up through the muddy ground. Like the New Hampshire primary, the skunk cabbage’s claim to fame is that it is the first of its kind—the advanced scout for the army of vegetation waiting to turn the dreary early-spring woods green again.

Almost since its leaves died last fall, the new buds of this hardy plant have been pushing up, waiting for the mercury to climb just enough to make its appearance above the ground.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century naturalist and writer, suggested that the late fall hiker contemplating the long winter months ahead, go to the swamp “and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage buds already advanced toward the new years.”

Although skunk cabbage is considered our first spring wildflower, it hardly looks like one. Rather than having colorful petals, its bloom consists of a hood-shaped spathe—a single, rounded, green leaf streaked with maroon.

The spathe is curled around a club-shaped spike within, called a spadix, a combination that is not unlike that of a Jack-in-the-pulpit, which is reflected in one of its colloquial names, “parson in a pillory.” The spadix is covered with tiny flowers with no petals that give off a strong odor, hence the “skunk” part of its name.

Its scientific name, Symplocarpus, is from the Greek for “connection” and “fruit.” This notes the clustered balls of red berries that appear on the plant in late summer. The species name, foetidus, is Latin and refers to the plant’s bad odor.

While the smell is offensive to human nostrils, it attracts insects, especially the honeybee. When the late March sun awakens the hive, there is little pollen to be had until the first wildflowers appear. Long before that, skunk cabbages are out in force, giving the bee some badly needed sustenance.

Although we tend to think of skunk cabbage as a small shoot, the plant is quite large by midsummer and has grown into clusters several feet wide with rhubarb-sized leaves. The foliage forms natural umbrellas, which give shelter to many kinds of small, wetland wildlife. Warblers might even build nests in the hollow of the plant, relying on the overpowering smell to mask the bird’s scent and thus throw off egg predators such as raccoons and possums.

Skunk cabbage was used extensively by Native Americans. They dressed wounds with a powder obtained from the dried roots, used the huge leaves as poultices and used root hairs to treat toothaches.

The Delaware made a tea for whooping cough from the root, and epileptics among them chewed the leaf to avoid seizures.

The Nanticoke used skunk cabbage in a cold medicine.

Micmacs sniffed bundles of leaves to relieve headaches.

Skunk cabbage has also been employed to treat asthma, rheumatism, hysteria and other maladies.

It is not an edible plant, however, since its leaves contain a chemical called calcium oxalate which inflames parts of the mouth and throat. This plant is widespread, ranging from to Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Minnesota and Iowa.

Because it is so common, it has gained a variety of colorful folk names, including skunkweed, polecat weed, meadow cabbage, fetid hellebore, rockweed, swamp cabbage, Midas ears, clumpfoot cabbage and polkweed.

I like to call it the “Springs-a-coming” plant.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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