Saturday, July 17, 2010

Stuck in the mud with snow on the ground : Digging Skunk Cabbage roots

This post is part of the "Adventures in Herbalism" Blog Party hosted by Darcey Blue French at

Sometimes the things that make a plant so amazing also make it extremely hard to gather.

So it is with Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Autumn would theoretically be the best time to harvest roots in a swamp in New England. The trouble is that by that time, the leaves of the Skunk Cabbage have died back. So why not just mark the location of the plant earlier in the season and then come back to it?

Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots -- and those roots allow the plants to move slowly across the swamp.

So if you want to dig the roots at the point when the plant's energy is concentrated underground, you have to do it in spring.

The trouble is that what a Skunk Cabbage calls spring in New England is quite different from what we call spring.

You see, Skunk Cabbage in a thermogenic plant. It generates heat to melt the ground around it.

So the flower of the Skunk Cabbage begins to appear when the ground is still frozen and there is often still snow on the ground.

And the time to harvest the roots is when the bud of the flower is still green -- before it opens and turns purple.

So that means slogging out over thin ice into a still frozen swamp.

When you find a bud peaking up through the frozen muck, its time to begin digging it up.

As you dig, the chilly water the plant melted begins to flood the hole and try to suck the plant back down.

And with a shovel its hard to really find how far the root goes down.

So once you have broken the ground, you really need to reach down and start digging with your hands, grasping the plant at its base with one hand, and beginning to extract the long tendrils from the mud.

Some of the plants can be hundreds of years old. And even a fifty year old plant has pretty big roots. And on the surface the one year old plant and the 300 year old plant look just the same. The only way to choose which one to harvest is to ask the plants. And sometimes its the old Grandfathers that will most want to provide their medicine.

So you soon find yourself stooped over in the swamp, almost elbow deep in the muck.

In order to be able to feel the roots you don't want anything thicker than a pair of rubber kitchen gloves. And they don't offer much insulation. And they only reach to your wrists. So you get cold fast. And after a while the tannins in the swamp mud begin working on your skin too -- along with the oxalate crystals of the Skunk Cabbage itself.

And when you are done digging that one plant and are ready to get up and move on to the next, the swamp sucks at your feet. Last March I lost the sole of one of my shoes after digging the roots of one Grandfather and finished the day's harvest with my foot wrapped in a garbage bag.

So I guess it says something about the kind of herbalist that I am that I look forward to the Skunk Cabbage harvest all year long.

Because part of the medicine comes in the harvest.

Harvesting any root is an act of connecting with the Underworld.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage is almost an Underworld initiation in its own right.

It forces you outside your comfort zone, bringing you bodily into the world beneath the surface of the swamp that you would normally never see.

And you come back with a medicine that helps to dredge up the things that keep you from being fully present in this world -- be it phlegm deep in the lungs, deep depression, or fluid built up anywhere in the body where it doesn't belong. And it calms the tremors and convulsions of that birth -- be it coughing, epilepsy, or uterine spasms.

You can't be born again without going through a dark, wet tunnel.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage can bring you to the entrance of one passage that will carry you through.

NOTE: Since writing this, I've heard from an herbalist whose family has been harvesting Eastern Skunk Cabbage roots in summer for several generations. Apparently drying the roots in an oven will eliminate enough Calcium Oxalate crystals to make the roots safe to use in a decoction.

Never the less, I do still think early Spring is the best time to harvest the roots -- the plant's energy remains concentrated in the roots at that early point before flowering.

Wendy Snow Fogg tells me that William LeSassier taught his students to harvest the roots in early spring by putting a knife into the center of the spathe.

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