The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wild Things 'n Stuff

Skunk Cabbage.Skunk Cabbage.By Sarah Bee © 1987

Issue: March, 1987

Skunk Cabbage, Pole Cat Weed, Skota or Symplocarpus foetidus, no matter what you call this plant, it stinks! The names seem to imply that.

When I was a child, my brother would crush a leaf (that's when it really smells) and chase after me to rub it on my clothes, usually after I had done something dreadful such as lose his fish worms or broke his stick fish pole.

This large beautiful plant grows all along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina in wet, swampy places. There is an abundance of it near Mabry Mill.

Most folks have never seen a skunk cabbage bloom. I suppose it's because it pokes its large fleshy hood through the snow and muck in March, before the huge green leafs unfold, and you would hardly notice it since it's about the same color as the muck. Also, not too many people are out poking around in swamps in March, looking for skunk cabbage blooms.

I think it's interesting that none of my wild flower books included this intriguing plant. I wonder if the authors did not know this plant blooms or if they were afraid it might smell up their books. What ever!

That is certainly not true with the books on wild edibles. A half dozen writers recommend it as a tasty vegetable when cooked in three different waters with a pinch of soda. They all insist that there is no trace of the foul odor during the cooking. This writer does not agree. I can assure you that it smells like skunk cabbage seasoned with pole cat juice and I am certainly not brave enough to taste it, yet! However, the late Euell Gibbons, a well known herbalist reported that he tried skunk cabbage boiled and seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. He said, "It tastes exactly like it smells, and burns your throat like red hot pepper as it goes down." I'll take his word for it. He died very young with ulcers.

In spite of all the bad mouthing, this plant is very useful. The American Indian called it "Skota" and made a nutritious bread from the roots. They also ground the dried roots into powder and used it to stop the flow of blood on surface wounds.

Skunk cabbage is found in nearly every list of medicinal herbs. Extract from the roots called dracontium is a narcotic, a stimulant and emetic.