Monday, April 4, 2011

A Harbinger of Spring and a Wildflower of Mid Winter

Skunk cabbage – Symplocarpus Foetidus

As the winter weather starts to wane, and the rays of the spring sun appear the magic of transformation
and growth is happening all around our rich moist woodlands. Tight green spikes appear through
snow and ice, creating melted shapes throughout the forest floor. In a few short weeks these Skunk
Cabbage buds will turn into beautiful solitary reddish green orbs. Often undiscovered the red spathe
sits silent especially when concealed among tangled grasses, with or without snow and ice. As mother
natures’ pollinators crawl through the opening in the spathe they use this natural sauna to stay warm
from the breezy chills of the early often unpredictable spring weather. Creating its own heat and often
maintaining a constant temperature of up to 72 degrees the inside of this plant cave holds a life-saving
supply of golden pollen for beetles, flys, and bees. This skunky odor attracts insects to the spherical
ball of tiny flowers hidden within. Actually the smell often resembles rotten meat and two of its scent-
producing substances are the same chemicals found in decaying animals. In fact the reddish color of the
spathe imitates that of meat and carrion to get the attention of flies and beetles.

A few creatures use the spathe for shelter. Spiders, slugs, frogs, and even warblers have been known to
hang out and even nest inside them during the summer months.

So much talk of the spathe and flowers but the skunk cabbage is usually in all its glory when the bright
green almost chartreuse leaves unfurl and overlap each other carpeting the moist soil. The leaves hinder
other plant growth by blocking out life sustaining sunlight that the skunk cabbage needs to live. These
natural umbrellas keep living beings cool and out of sight from potential predators.

This winter wildflower has been used medicinally for years. The leaves were used in poultices for burns,
root hairs treated toothaches, the scent of crushed leaves helped to alleviate headaches, the pulverized
root was used externally to make hair grow, a charcoal mixed with bear grease was said to cause “power
dreams” and crushed leaves as a poultice were used for the healing of sore knees. Grizzly and black
bears foraged for the roots after hibernation to strengthen and cleanse their stomach.

Once found throughout our region. The skunk cabbage is found less frequent due to encroachment on
the habitat it survives in. Often bogs and swamps get drained for highways, housing, and commercial
developments because of the common thought that these areas are considered “waste” areas
condemned because of no civilized value.

**** When out foraging and you need to make a quick sturdy container use skunk cabbage leaves.
Great for berry collecting and even used as a container for collecting water.