By Suzanne Wodek
In the 90 plus articles I have written for this magazine on behalf of the Botanical Gardens, Symplocarpus foetidus is the most unusual plant I have encountered. As an artistic person, I find its form and coloring to be most beautiful. It also resembles something other worldly, sci-fi actually.
Skunk cabbage is sometimes called the ‘first flower of spring.’ A large brownish-purple and green, mottled, shelllike spathe (hood) encloses a round orb covered with tiny flowers. It generates its own heat, often melting the snow that sometimes covers it in late February or early March, and gives off a foul stench to attract flies for pollination. The leaves emerge after the flowers bloom. They smell unpleasant if they are crushed, hence the name “skunk cabbage.”
All parts of the plant are poisonous except the uncurled leaf and roots. Symptoms of poisoning include burning and swelling of lips, tongue and throat; nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur. My research concluded that if you collect it at the proper time, prepare it properly and eat it in small quantities, it is safe to eat.
If you feel you must have this plant in your landscape, know that it tends to form large colonies in favorable habitats. It likes shade/part shade, wet soil, and thrives in swamps and seeps, and along shores, wet woods and marshes.
Skunk cabbage was much used by the native North Americans primarily for its expectorant and antispasmodic properties to treat bronchitis and asthmatic conditions. In the 19th century, the US Pharmacopoeia listed skunk cabbage as the drug “dracontium.” It was used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism and edema.
Upcoming at the Botanical Gardens
Join us Saturday, March 11, from 1–3 p.m. for a Botanical Cyanotype Workshop. Join artist Jocelyn Mathewes and create beautiful blue botanical art prints using the oldest historic photographic process, cyanotype. Students will create images on both paper and fabric, and have at least three pieces to take home, as well as a resource list and knowledge for how to set up for and make their own cyanotypes. Cost for the workshop is $12 for members, $17 for non-members, and a $10 fee per student covers all materials. Participation is limited to 12 students. Participants must pre-register and pre-pay for classes by calling 828.252.5190.
The Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. Check ashevillebotanicalgardens.org for a variety of education programs this month.