Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wild Medicinal: Skunk Cabbage

  • Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate.  From Wikipedia

     As a forensic meteorologist, my work's study of seasonal changes tend to be atmospheric changes.  A biologist would probably watch breeding times, migration patterns, and hibernation schedules.  We homesteaders tend to know last frost days, earliest frost days, when our animals give birth, harvest times.  Botanists tend to know when certain plants come up, when they flower, and when they go to seed.  Then there are the general phenologists, which most people are.  Every person has something that tells them the seasons are changing.  The first blue bird of spring, the geese flying south in the fall, when we see the first fawns... For many nature lovers, there is the one flower that burns its way through the snow to be the first flowers of the spring.  The only thing is you have to be willing to slosh into the deep swamps to find it.  

    Skunk cabbage is a perennial plant that stores its energy in its roots through the winter so it can get an early start in the spring.  Because it usually grows in deeper woods, the flower comes early before the trees leaves can shade it out.  Its flower literally burns its way up through the snow.  It is a plant that produces heat so that it can get an even earlier start than most plants.  It get its name from the scent its very primitive flower gives off.  The flower comes up too early for the normal nectar eating insects to pollinate it so it tries to attract the only pollinator that is around, the fly.  Skunk cabbage smells like rotting flesh because that is what flies like.

    The nice thing is if you process skunk cabbage correctly that smell isn't there.

    The part of skunk cabbage that is used medicinally is the root.  It is white, bulb-like and shallow.  If the ground isn't frozen, it is quite easy to harvest by simply pulling on the flower itself.  The root is best gathered as early as possible in the spring with one exception...in its very young stage, skunk cabbage can look like the poisonous black hellbore.  Most people wait until the flower opens and then they harvest their skunk cabbage.

    Harvesting is only half the battle with skunk cabbage though.  Fresh skunk cabbage contains calcium oxalate crystals, which, as long as there is a hint of moisture in the plant, will burn you like you're eating acid.  It's not really poisonous when fresh, but that may be because no one would have the strength to eat such a painful plant to poison themselves with it.  Skunk cabbage must be completely dried before use. And when I say completely dried, I mean not like dehydrated but having not a drop of its original moisture left in it.  Then it can be powered and let dry some more.  Skunk cabbage medicine will only last about a year and then it needs to be replaced.

    What I do is dry it in a warm, dark place.  Because I harvest it this time of year the wood stove is still going. I have shelves set up behind the wood stove for drying skunk cabbage.  I slice it really thin and let it set until it breaks not bends.  Then I grind it up, spread it on cookie sheets and let it dry again.  Once the powder is completely dry I put it into jars and either vacuum seal the jars or put in a handful of rice to absorb any remaining moisture.  The rice can be sifted out of the power when it is needed to be used.

    Skunk cabbage powder is used to relax the body and as a diuretic.  It acts as a mild narcotic and I use it mostly for uncontrollable coughing that doesn't let a person rest.  It lets the muscles that do the coughing relax enough so the person can get the rest that is often the most important part of healing.  It should not be used in cases of mucus in the lungs that need to be brought up.  It is also used for arthritis more to help the person relax through the pain instead of as an actual pain killer.  It can be mixed with willow bark to help heal tension head aches. I have also used it when a filly broke my collar bone a couple years ago.  It broke on the left side and when I was healing I kept trying to do things with my right side.  Those muscles became sore and tired.  Skunk cabbage powder helped relax those over used muscles.

    While there are easier diuretics to gather and use, many people still use it especially if they need to lose water weight for their heart or during menstruation.  It helps the body relax as well as get rid of extra water weight.

    For me gathering skunk cabbage is part of the fun.  You can't get into much wilder places than into the deep dark swamps where they grow.  I was once out gathering up roots and scared up a mink less than a foot away from me.  He stared at me with his beady little eyes for a moment before he inched to the creek to continue his hunt.  It was an amazing, wild moment that helped heal me just as much as  the skunk cabbage.

    It takes a bit of work to collect and process but its relaxing effects are well worth the trouble.  


  1. You are one talented and knowledgeable lady! Sure wish you lived in my neighborhood. But so, probably, does everyone else who reads your blog! So much information to assimilate. You are a treasure trove!

    1. Thank you so much Mama Pea, but I think we all have our talents and things we can teach. I'm learning alot from you too.

  2. I totally agree with Mama Pea! :)

    Happy New Moon!

    1. Thank you so much, but I always feel like I'm taking so much from all of you (your wisdom, hopefully nothing else) and I don't have much to share. I'm just a country hick that loves to read and learn from everyone. lol