foetid pothos

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Foetid Pothos, Meadow Cabbage, Polecat Weed, Skunk Cabbage, or Swamp Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), commonly known as simply Skunk Cabbage, is a low growing, foul smelling plant that prefers wetlands. It can be found naturally in eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee, and also in northeastern Asia, in eastern Siberia, northeastern China and Japan. It is the only species in the genus, although the genus Lysichiton is similar. Skunk cabbage is protected as a state endangered plant in Tennessee.

Description

The leaves are large, 40-55 cm long and 30-40 cm broad. It flowers early in the year; the flowers are produced in a 5-10 cm long spadix contained within a spathe, 10-15 cm tall and mottled purple in colour. It flowers in the early spring, when only the flowers are visible above the mud, with the stems buried below and the leaves emerging later. The rhizome is often 30 cm thick.

Ecology

Breaking or tearing a leaf produces a pungent odor. This property lends itself to the 'skunk' in the common name. The plant is not poisonous to the touch. Though unpleasant, the smell is not harmful. The foul odor attracts its pollinators, scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees. The odor in the leaves may also serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging this plant which grows in soft wetland soils.

Skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 15-35° C above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground, placing it among a small group of plants exhibiting thermogenesis. Although flowering whilst there is still snow and ice on the ground it is successfully pollinated by early insects that also emerge at this time. Some studies suggest that beyond allowing the plant to grow in icy soil, the heat it produces may help to spread its odor in the air. Carrion-feeding insects that are attracted by the scent may be doubly encouraged to enter the spathe because it is warmer than the surrounding air, fueling pollination.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.

Uses

In the 19th century the U. S. Pharmacopoeia listed eastern skunk cabbage as the drug "dracontium". It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy. In North America and Europe, skunk cabbage is occasionally cultivated in water gardens. Skunk cabbage was used extensively as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman by various tribes of Native Americans. While not considered edible raw, because the roots are toxic and the leaves can burn the mouth, the leaves may be dried and used in soups and stews.

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