New Appalachian Moments Blog Post by Scott Ballard
There are so many wonderful plants, shrubs and trees that grace our mountains…notably ginseng, trillium, rhododendron, laurel and dogwoods…however the plants that don’t get much respect or even recognition might be best represented by lowly but hearty skunk cabbage.
Like daffodils, its appearance is a first hurrah of spring, but the term Skunk Fever doesn’t really sound as appealing as Spring Fever!
For our more international audience it’s called Tabac du Diable in French: literally The Devil’s tobacco! But, trust us, you won’t want to want to smoke this. It’s Latin name is Symplocarpus foetidus which simply translated means: smelly wrist. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Legend has it that Indians used skunk cabbage in some sort of medicinal manner…medicinal…hmmm…a social remedy perhaps as in “you better straighten up or we’re going to rub skunk cabbage all over you.”
It’s also known as swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, or polecat weed. It’s found from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, and although this might not pass the sniff test, skunk cabbage is protected as an endangered plant in Tennessee.
When its leaves are bruised or crushed, the plant releases a strong odor which smells like rotten meat. This smell attracts insects but repels nosy neighbors. And believe it or not, but local nurseryman Rob Fletcher at Gardens of the Blue Ridge says that skunk cabbage is often in demand because of it’s uniqueness!
Speaking of…skunk cabbage is also in a very small group of plants having the super power of thermogenesis! The plant can heat itself to as much as 60 degrees warmer than the surrounding air. It needs this ability because of its other unique property, it grows backward or downward and needs to create warmth to send its roots through the frozen ground! So each year the plant grows deeper into the earth. Impressed yet?
So, you might excite and/or fend off your neighbors with skunk cabbage, but if you do plant it, remember this, you might never be able to dig it out!