Skunk Cabbage

This genus includes three species of rhizomatous perennials, occurring in northeastern N America and NE Asia. Symplocarpus foetidus is an unusual and interesting plant for the banks of streams and ponds. It is extremely hardy, tolerating -35°C (-31°F). The strange inflorescences appear at ground level early in the year, and produce their own internal heat to melt the surrounding snow and attract pollinators. The roots of S. foetidus are known to contain volatile oil, resins, and a slightly narcotic alkaloid, 5-hydroxytryptamine, but the pharmacology is poorly understood. Its uses among native N Americans include an inhalation of crushed leaves for headaches and a decoction of root hairs to treat external bleeding. Symplocarpus is from the Greek symploke, "union", and karpos, "fruit", and refers to the coalescence of the ovaries into a single fruit.

Large perennial with a stout, vertical rhizome, and ovate to heart-shaped leaves, to 50cm (20in) long, which emit a musky smell when bruised. Inflorescences, borne at ground level in winter, consist of a fleshy, incurved, maroon spathe, to 15cm (6in) long, and a rotund, black-maroon spadix, 3cm (1¼in) across.

Common Name:
Skunk cabbage
Other Names:
Polecat Weed
Botanical Name:
Symplocarpus foetidus
Northeastern N America.
Deep, rich, moist to wet, lime-free soil in sun or shade. Does not transplant easily.
By seed kept wet until sown in autumn or spring; by division of large clumps during dormancy. Seedlings are slow-growing and dislike disturbance.
Rhizomes and roots are lifted during dormancy and dried for decoctions, infusions, liquid extracts, powders, and tinctures.
75cm (30in)
75cm (30in)
Parts Used:
Rhizomes, roots
A pungentm warning, anti-spasmodic, sedative herb with a fetid odor. It acts as an expectorant and diuretic, and increases perspiration.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough, mucus, hay fever, and irritating coughs. Combines well with Grindelia camporum (See, Gumweed) and Euphorbia hirta (See, Asthma Weed) for bronchitis and asthma.
Excess causes vomiting
Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright ©: 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pp.377-378