I sense some disappointment in those visiting the center these days. The excitement of shed hunting season has waned, and it is NOT morel season yet. These folks are lost, and they cannot think of any reason to go foraging through the woods. Let me try to bring some hope to those lost souls. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) may be what you seek. You may not want to eat skunk cabbage – or have much use for it at all – but the thrill of the hunt may be just what the doctor ordered.
We should first note that skunk cabbage is a perennial, native, flowering plant. It is one of the first to show itself in the spring, and it often melts the snow and ice from around it with the heat it gives off. This plants flower bud can warm up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows them to bloom as early as February. This picture was taken on March 17 in northern Iowa.
If you look at the picture by Larry Reis, you will notice the speckled maroon “hood” of a leaf (called a spathe) surrounding a yellowish spike of flowers without petals. As these flowers mature, the leaf will open wider. The scent of this flower is one only flies and carrion beetles find attractive. As the name suggests, this flower gives off a somewhat rancid smell, which attracts pollinators that like rotting meat. This scent becomes stronger when the plant is broken. After these insects pollinate the flowers, berrylike fruits will form and hold the seeds for next spring.
Skunk cabbage is found from eastern Canada down to Tennessee and North Carolina. We are well within its range here in Iowa. Look in woodlands near wet areas and streams. You will likely have to leave the trail in your search so be aware of your surroundings, and don’t get stuck in any thorns or wander onto private property.
The last question is if there is a use for this plant. Most animals avoid it because of the smell and the burning sensation it causes when eaten. Some bears will eat the young plants. Native Americans have used it as a medicine for coughs and headaches. In the 1800s, it was sold as dracontium to treat a wide variety of ailments. Would I recommend trying it? No. I found the following note, which tells you that skunk cabbage is edible, but it also says it can be toxic. I will not try it, and I recommend we all refrain from eating it.
“Use Food: EDIBLE PARTS: Young, uncurled leaves and roots. Collect the bright green, unfurled leaves in the very early spring. FOOD PREPARATION: Soak young shoots and roots in warm water to remove dirt and debris. Do not use dish detergent or any type of sanitizer. Carefully handle leaves after collecting. Bruised leaves will give off an unpleasant smell. The smell disappears after cooking. Cook for 20 minutes, change the water at least twice and replace with fresh, boiling salted water. Serve like greens. Roots are very bitter and burning in their raw state. Peel, cut into small pieces, roast in an oven for at least one hour and grind in a flour or coffee grinder until quite fine. Add to bread dough or muffin batter. (Poisonous Plants of N.C.)
Warning: POISONOUS PARTS: All parts except uncurled leaves and roots. Toxic only if eaten in large quantities. Symptoms include burning and swelling of lips, tongue, and throat; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. Toxic Principle: Calcium oxalate crystals and possibly others.”
If the thrill of the hunt is what you seek, consider finding skunk cabbage your next test. Happy hunting!