Before the ground has completely defrosted in northern Indiana, one of spring’s first plants pokes its green spears through the earth. Skunk cabbage grows prolifically in low, wet places, including a drainage ditch that parallels the Goshen Millrace.
After a long, cold winter and a long, cool spring, everything is now shining with fresh golden green, overshadowing the first appearance of skunk cabbage. The redbuds have bloomed and faded, giving way to new leaves and a host of pink and purple blossoms – from apple and cherry trees to roadside phlox. People have been running on the Millrace in shorts for weeks. Geese and ducks are nurturing their new offspring. Even gnats and mosquitoes have been making an appearance. So why can’t I get the lowly skunk cabbage out of my mind?
In between the cold and the heat, skunk cabbage has blossomed and grown from a series of green spears to wide, low, leafy plants with broad ridges, leaving filling in any bare spots along the low banks of the drainage ditch, the background of foliage of spring’s symphony. It’s one of the first signs of spring, and it stays around to add to the celebration.
Skunk cabbage has a humble name, rivaled in ugliness by its Latin species name: symplocarpus foetidus. It grows in low, wet areas and gives off the odor of a skunk when stepped on. Its stench attracts its pollinators, which include stoneflies and bees. It’s possible the stink also keeps away larger predators, although another name for it is “bear weed,” given to the plant by Swedish settlers in Pennsylvania who noticed bears devouring its flowers and leaves in early spring. (See Craig Holdrege’s extensive article on the plant in The Nature Institute’s publication “In Context #4” (Fall, 2000, pp. 12-18).
The lotus, a flower much revered in Buddhism, grows from muck and offers a beautiful blossom that floats above the water. Skunk cabbage, while not a water plant, thrives on moisture and feeds on decay. The skunk cabbage strikes me as a Midwestern Lotus, working its way through frozen ground by creating its own heat through cellular respiration, otherwise known as thermogenesis. It nurtures pesky insects with its stench, and yet offers the first baroque shapes of spring in a hooded and hidden flower and a proliferation of nested tubular plants that open up into a lush, curvilinear, ribbed leaf.
Skunk cabbage flowers emerge before the leaf, hidden in a green hood known as a spathe, which may be a mottled purple or a yellow-green. Once the leaves have emerged and matured, fruits begin to appear on the skunk cabbage, at which time the leaves begin to actually dissolve, giving their energy back to the rhizome and the root. Thus skunk cabbage is a deeply rooted plant that is nearly impossible to pull out of the ground.
We don’t eat skunk cabbage today – although it isn’t poisonous, it apparently leaves a burning sensation in the mouth. However, Daniel E. Moerman’s “Nature American Ethnobotany” lists dozens of medicinal uses for the plant: it’s an anti-inflammatory; a cough and cold medicine; an analgesic; an anti-convulsant remedy for epilepsy, whooping cough, rheumatism, menstrual cramps and toothache; and perhaps best of all, a remedy for dog bites that causes the biter’s teeth to fall out.
Skunk cabbage is just one of a myriad of treasures that keep me, and many others, coming back to the Millrace.