Learn all about the skunk cabbage and its three main types. Be able to distinguish one from the other and get to know the various uses of the plant and how to cultivate it.
Skunk cabbage is a perennial wildflower that is found in wet, swampy areas in forests. It is part of the Araceae family and has the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus. This plant is found in Eastern Canada, Northern United States, Minnesota, Tennessee, and North Carolina. This plant appears from February through May.
Features of the Skunk Cabbage Plant
This plant has leaves that are larger than usual plant leaves. They are margined and have a plastic feel to them, with a slight crinkle. They grow from a central point and spread apart as they grow bigger. The flowers of the skunk cabbage plant are round in shape and measure approximately 2 inches. The pollination of this plant is followed by the appearance of a reddish-brown colored fruit with a single seed.
This plant has a rather large rhizome root system. These roots spread in the ground reaching rather deep, owing to the fact that the skunk cabbage plant does not have a taproot. The approximate life span of this plant is 20 years, under healthy growing conditions, and its leaves shed on a yearly basis.
The large leaves of this plant leave off a very foul odor when crushed. This smell is like that of a skunk or rotting meat, and that is exactly where this plant gets its name. The flowers of the skunk cabbage plant start to show up before the leaves do. Each flower has a mottled maroon, hoodlike leaf that is called a spathe.
Toward the center is a knob-like structure that is called a spadix. It has a fleshy feel to it and has many petal-less flowers. As time passes by, the spathe opens up and attracts flies, bees and other pollinators. These then pollinate the flowers.
Uses of the Skunk Cabbage Plant
This plant has been used for many years as a form of medicine to treat coughs and headaches. In the 1800s, it was also sold as a drug by the name of “dracontium” that was used to treat many diseases. Care should be taken when using this plant for any purpose since it is poisonous to humans. It cannot be used unless it is processed.
Only the leaves and the roots of this plant are edible if collected early off in the spring. Animals mostly tend to avoid this plant since it can cause a burning sensation when eaten. However, young bears consume this plant in the spring season. Insects feed on the leaves of the skunk cabbage plant and also lay eggs on them.
Cultivation of the Skunk Cabbage Plant
This plant can best be propagated by sowing seeds. Moist soil that is slightly acidic to slightly alkaline makes for the best soil condition to grow this plant in. Along with this, a wet, shady area is ideal for the growth of this plant. The skunk cabbage plant can only tolerate standing water to the point where the water either gets absorbed by the soil or evaporates due to the heat of the sun. Any more water can seriously hinder the growth of this plant.
It needs the entire growing season to have its seeds mature. The spadix turns a darker color and tends to have a spongy feel to it as it develops. As much as the smell of this plant is foul to humans, it attracts a lot of bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. In addition to that, this plant does well in temperatures ranging between 15 to 35 degrees Celsius.
Types of Skunk Cabbage
There are three main types of skunk cabbage plants. All of these three develop from rhizomes and bloom in early spring. The flowers are yellowish-white in color and are on a spadix that is found inside a showy spathe. These three types are mentioned below and explained in great detail.
Symplocarpus Foetidus (Eastern Skunk Cabbage)
This is the eastern variety of skunk cabbage. It is a low growing perennial that is maroon in color and belongs to the Arum or Araceae family. The flowers of this variety emerge somewhere in early spring. The yellow spathe of this variety measures 10 to 15 cm, and the spadices measure approximately 5 to 10 cm and are bright yellow or purple in color. By late summer, the leaves of this variety die. After pollination happens, the fruit is produced. This fruit is purple or black and becomes very smelly as the plant matures.
Additionally, an important point to note about this plant is that it is thermogenic. This means that the flowers of this plant can produce their own heat at around 20 degrees Celsius over 2 weeks. This allows the flower to show up quite early in the spring season, even if there is snow on the ground. This variety is found in both North America and Asia.
For ideal growth of this type of skunk cabbage plant, wet soil is necessary; the kind that is often found near springs and bogs. The soil can be slightly acidic or alkaline. The leaves of this variety are bright green and measure approximately 15 to 20 inches. When the eastern skunk cabbage’s leaves are broken or crushed, they leave off a very foul smell like that of a skunk. As mentioned earlier, this smell is where the plant gets its name from.
This plant does not decay like all other plants. They begin to “slime,” which is a term that means that they start to dissolve – almost as if they are digesting themselves. This leaves a lot of holes in the plant as it slowly disappears into the background.
Lysichiton Americanus (Western Skunk Cabbage)
Other common names for this variety include yellow skunk cabbage and American skunk cabbage. This variety is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9. It has a high amount of calcium oxalate and should not be consumed raw since it is toxic and can mess with the digestive system. However, after cooking, it can be consumed since cooking ensures that the calcium oxalate is destroyed.
It is mostly found in open swamps and wet woods near the coast. Apart from that, this plant rarely flowers if it is in the shade. As its name suggests, this plant is native to Western America; however, it can also be found in Britain too. This variety grows up to a height of 3 feet approximately and spreads 2 feet. April is the flowering season for this plant, and the seeds tend to ripen in June and July.
Adding to that, this species is hermaphrodite, which means that it has both male and female organs. Insects are very much attracted to this plant. Sandy, loamy, or clayey soils are ideal for its healthy growth, and the soil can be acidic, neutral, or alkaline. Apart from that, this plant can grow well in semi shade or no shade. The western skunk cabbage plant has average watering requirements. When growing this plant, care should be taken to leave a space of 1 meter between consecutive plantings in order to ensure that the roots have enough space to grow and also so that there is enough space for air circulation between them. The ideal propagation method for this variety is by seeds.
This plant has a variety of uses. It has been used for many years by North American Indian tribes to treat a lot of problems like swelling, burns and chest aches. Oftentimes, chronic joint pains and pregnancy-related problems are also treated by the medicinal properties that this plant has to offer. The leaves of this variety are used in soothing herbal sweat baths. Apart from the medicinal usage of this plant, the leaves can also be used in many practical ways. They are used as a water-repellant, to make wax strips, and even to wrap food in order to keep it safe and dust-free.
Asian Skunk Cabbage
The scientific name for this variety is Lysichiton camtschatcensis. This variety is an herbaceous perennial that is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 7. This plant typically grows to a height of 2 to 3 feet and spreads 2 to 3 feet too. The flowers of this variety are yellow or green in color with a white spathe and bloom in the month of April. This variety needs full sun or partial shade to grow to become a healthy plant. Apart from that, this plant has medium water requirements, which makes it easy to maintain. It can be best put to use in naturalized or rain gardens.
For the ideal growth of this plant, fertile soil is necessary. The soil should be humus rich. It is best if the soil is medium wet in order to help the plant grow. The native regions for this variety are Japan and Russia. This variety gets its name from the Greek word ‘lysis’ which means ‘loosening’ in its literal form and ‘chiton,’ which means cloak.
This plant does not have any serious insect or disease problems and so, caring for it is relatively easy. It has a clump-forming habit and takes approximately 5 to 10 years to grow to its maximum height. The best method for propagation of this plant is through seeds that are sown in damp soil in the spring or summer season. The Asian skunk cabbage plant does not need any pruning to keep it looking fresh and healthy.
On an ending note, this plant gives off a very foul odor, but it is really useful in terms of the benefits that it has to offer, especially in the field of medicine.