Skunk Cabbage: A Stinky Name for a Helpful Plant
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
One of the first signs that spring is near in Ohio is the arrival of skunk cabbage in late January and February, often when there is still snow on the ground. The maroon flowering plant can be found in marshy and swampy areas, as well as near streams and woodlands. It keeps its maroon color well into spring, and it flowers before its leaves appear. When they do, they grow large and bright green, contrasting the grays, browns and blacks of the early spring landscape. (Article continues below)
Skunk cabbage gets its name from the pungent smell it releases to attract bugs for pollination. It really does smell like a skunk! But despite its reputation, and smell, the plant is quite useful, and very interesting.
Skunk cabbage is unique because it survives and blooms even during freezing temperatures. It does this by producing its own heat using oxygen and a large root system to make its core rise to as much as 72 degrees, even if it's zero outside. Since hot air rises, this process is why the skunky aroma carries so far in the winter and spring air, and why snow that falls on top of the plant melts.
Skunk cabbage, which can live up to 20 years, is part of the Arum family. Its closest cousins are tropical plants. They are native to the eastern North America and range from Quebec down to North Carolina. However, they are currently endangered in Tennessee.
For people, and a few animals, skunk cabbage is a welcome sight each winter.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, while most animals avoid it because it causes a burning sensation when eaten, bears are known to feast on the young plants in the spring. Native Americans used skunk cabbage as a medical treatment for coughs and headaches, and in the 1800s, it was sold as a drug called dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.
The healing powers of skunk cabbage don’t stop there.
According to WebMD, the root and underground stem (rhizome) can be used to make medicines that treat breathing problems, joint and muscle pain, headaches, toothaches, spasms, epilepsy, cancer, anxiety, snakebites, wounds and more. It’s also used to stimulate the digestive system.
The plant works this magic because it contains a chemical that relieves pain and causes relaxation, WebMD states.
As food, the leaves, roots and stalks can be boiled and eaten. However, it should be noted that, when eaten raw, the roots are toxic, so do your homework before adding skunk cabbage to your next meal.
There are many local places to see skunk cabbage, but two that stand out are the boardwalk trail at Brukner Nature Center in Miami County and at Cedar Bog Nature Preserve in Champaign County. Both are open year-round.
Almost everywhere where skunk cabbage grows, so do marsh marigolds. With their yellow flowers, mixed in with the bright green leaves and maroon flowers of skunk cabbage, many marshy areas in Ohio are absolutely beautiful in the spring, and they often provide a fresh breath of air (no pun intended) after a long, cold winter.
For an enjoyable day trip in the spring, which includes plenty of skunk cabbage and marsh marigold, plus many other interesting sites and attractions, try our Brukner to the Bog Spring Driving Tour.