By Kathryn Moore
How can one describe this succulent, thick fleshed flower, that pokes its tips out of the muck and swamps at Metea Park? It is truly an oddity of nature! I have seen the tips in November in readiness for a very early appearance in late February or early March. The flowers are a knob-shaped cluster (spadix) covered with yellow pollen. Surrounding the flower is a 2-5" thick hood (spathe) mottled with colors of brown, green, and purple. The leaves come a week or two later, at first coiled, then becoming very large in late spring. The cabbage-like leaves rise to two feet and have a foul odor when crushed. In early summer, the flower dies away, leaving the beautiful large leaves to brighten the swamp with marsh marigolds. The two are companions in the swamp. I love the scene!
The Latin name is Symplocarpus foetidus and the plant is in the Arum family, the same family as the jack-in-the pulpit. Skunk cabbage covers a large range, from Eastern Quebec to Western Ontario and south to Missouri and Georgia. The leaves are called elephant ears in some localities, in reference to their large size. The flowers have a carrion-like smell which attracts flies for pollinating other plants. The bad odor coming from the crushed leaves is skunk-like, hence the name skunk cabbage. The plant grows in swamps and bog margins, in wet mucky soil.
In Euell Gibbon's 1966 book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, he entertainingly tells us about how he cooked the tightly rolled cones of the young leaves as a vegetable, boiled in two or more changes of water, with a pinch of soda. The bad smell covered the kitchen and when he ate the leaves, there was a bad burning in his mouth! Later he successfully made pancakes from the dried roots. The roots were dried for six months!
Skunk cabbage is listed in the U.S. Parmacopoeia from 1880 - 1882. It is still listed in the U.S. Dispensatory as an emetic, stimulant, antispasmodic, and narcotic. The Micmac Indians treated headaches by binding a bunch of the leaves together, crushing them, and inhaling the sharp odor. This would fit the "doctrine of signatures" where "like cures like".
Once, the land surrounding the Fort Wayne area was filled with swamps and bogs, but in recent years, most of the land has been drained. Metea Park is fortunate to have an area (where the Soft Shell Turtle and Raccoon Trails merge) where this plant grows. The Metea parkland off Hursh Road also has this oddity, growing near Cedar Creek. In a huge area at the Isaac Walton League, near Cedar Creek, skunk cabbage and marsh marigolds thrive. There is a small stand at Fox Island, our other county park. It is sad to note that driving down country roads, all our natural wetlands are gone and the sight of bright green skunk cabbage leaves a forgotten sight. Although skunk cabbage was never rare, it is now disappearing with the draining of our bottom lands. On the bright side, there are county parklands and Acres Land Trust, who are dedicated to saving these wonderful areas, where nature's oddity, the skunk cabbage, continues to grow this spring and forever.