Herb: Skunk Cabbage

Latin name: Symplocarpus foetidus

Synonyms: Dracontium foetidum, Spathyema foetida

Family: Araceae (Arum Family)

Medicinal use of Skunk Cabbage:

Skunk cabbage was much used by the native North American Indians primarily for its expectorant and antispasmodic properties to treat bronchitis and asthmatic conditions, a use that is still employed in modern herbalism. The plant should be used with some caution, however, and preferably under professional supervision. Handling the fresh leaves can cause skin to blister whilst excessive doses of the root can bring on nausea and vomiting, headaches and dizziness. The root is antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, expectorant and slightly narcotic. The rootstock is harvested in late autumn or early spring and dried for later use. It should not be stored for a long time because it loses its medicinal virtues. The rootstock has been used internally in the treatment of respiratory and nervous disorders, including asthma, whooping cough, catarrh, bronchitis and hay fever. It is occasionally used to treat epilepsy, headaches, vertigo and rheumatic problems. Externally, it has been used as a poultice to draw splinters and thorns, to heal wounds and to treat headaches. The root hairs or rootlets have been applied to dental cavities to treat toothache. A tea made from the root hairs has been used externally to stop bleeding. An inhalation of the crushed leaves has been used in the treatment of headaches. The leaf bases have been applied as a wet dressing to bruises.

Description of the plant:


50 cm
(1 foot)

to April


Habitat of the herb:

Marshes, bogs, swampy woods and by streams.

Edible parts of Skunk Cabbage:

Root - cooked. The root must be thoroughly dried or cooked before being eaten, see notes above on toxicity. Traditionally the root was dried for at least 5 weeks or boiled for 3 days before being eaten. Young leaves - cooked. A peppery flavour. The water should be changed at least once during the cooking process. The leaves must be thoroughly cooked, see notes on toxicity above.

Other uses of the herb:

An infusion of the powdered root has been used as a wash to "cure a strong smell under your arm".

Propagation of Skunk Cabbage:

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. The seed should be stored in water if it is not sown immediately. Stored seed can be sown in late winter or early spring. Stand the pot in 2cm of water to keep the compost wet. Germination should take place in the spring, prick out the seedlings into individual pots once they are large enough to handle and grow them on in wet soil in light shade in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out in late spring once they are large enough. Division with great care whilst the plant is dormant.

Cultivation of the herb:

Marshes, bogs, swampy woods and by streams.

Known hazards of Symplocarpus foetidus:

The plant is poisonous. This report probably refers to the presence of calcium oxylate in all parts of the plant. This substance is toxic and if consumed makes the mouth and digestive tract feel as though hundreds of needles are being stuck into it. However, calcium oxylate is easily destroyed by thoroughly cooking or drying the plant.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.