Monday, March 1, 2010

Skunk Cabbage: New England Bear Medicine

This post is part of the March Blog party hosted by Karen Vaughan at

Thanks to Shannon Donahue of the Great Bear Foundation and to Georgia Stillwell for information used in this post.


Black bears dream all winter, listening to the songs the plants sing underground while waiting to emerge back into the world.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus/Dracontium foetidus) is the first of plant to poke its head through the ground in the swamps of New England, budding just before the first bears come out of their dens. It melts the ice and snow around it by generating heat through a chemical process remarkably similar to that used by hibernating animals to raise their temperature as they rouse from sleep.

Depending on how many acorns are left on the ground, Skunk Cabbage will make up from 50% - over 99% of a black bear's diet in this part of the world.

To the extent that Skunk Cabbage is known today as a medicinal plant, it is known for the effectiveness of the tincture or decoction in treating respiratory conditions including asthma, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. But the plant's association with bears provides a useful framework for rediscovering other aspects of its medicine.

The Micmac use of a decoction of the root to treat diabetes (sometimes in combination with Lady's Slipper) suggesting that the plant may have some impact on regulating blood sugar or general metabolism. The Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois") peoples used the plant to rid children of parasitic worms. And Skunk Cabbage is somewhat diuretic. These actions may suggest some of the roles Skunk Cabbage plays in the bears' spring diet

In more southern climes, black bears eat a lot of Willow catkins. Like Willow, Skunk Cabbage contains high levels of salicylates, which partially account for its analgesic (pain relieving) and diaphoretic (reducing fever by dissipating body heat) qualities. According to Daniel Moreman, many peoples use a poultice of crushed Skunk Cabbage leaves topically to treat pain -- a use I dreamed about long before I read this. The fact that Skunk Cabbage is also powerfully anti-spasmodic may make it a superior topical remedy to other salicylate bearing plants for throbbing muscle pain -- I've used the root tincture internally for this indication, but massaging the tincture directly into the affected area may be effective as well . Some women report excellent relief from menstrual cramps from taking 5-10 drops of the tincture at 15 minute intervals.

(A note of caution before we proceed -- Skunk Cabbage contains high levels of calcium oxalate crystals throughout the plant, making the raw plant potentially deadly in high enough doses. Heat and drying will break them down. NEVER use Skunk Cabbage roots that have not been dried. After drying, tincturing will slow the deterioriation of the relevant medicinal compounds. Untinctured dry Skunk Cabbage root is only good for about a year.)

Like many root medicines associated with bears (Angelica, Osha, Spikenard, etc.), Skunk Cabbage promotes a dropping down into the openness and receptivity that mark the parasympathetic nervous state. Our cultural conditioning makes us think of the parasympathetic state as lethargic and the sympathetic state as alert. But in reality the sympathetic state is marked by a narrowly focused awareness best suited to evading a single immediate physical threat, while the parasympathetic state is associated with broader sensory awareness to everything in one's surroundings.

Many Native peoples in Eastern North America use Skunk Cabbage as a medicine for "calming the nerves." William Cook wrote in 1869 that the plant had a reputation as a narcotic, but that he viewed it more as a nervine "of the most innocent and effective soothing character" --a description that very much matches my own experience. Its combined nervine and anti-spasmodic qualities likely account for its historic use in the treatment of epilepsy (first by the Haudenosaunee and later by the Eclectics.)

Stephen Buhner reports that the powdered root of the plant's western cousin, Lysichiton americanus, also known as Skunk Cabbage, taken as a snuff, immediately initiates the user into the warm and deeply open state that he associates with the centering of consciousness in the heart. Interestingly, our eastern Skunk Cabbage is used by the Menominee to treat "weak heart" and by the Passamaquoddy to treat various heart conditions. I plan an experiment this spring to see if our Skunk Cabbage has the same quality Buhner has discovered in the western species.

Another quality that Skunk Cabbage shares with other bear medicines like Osha and Angelica is an affinity for the female reproductive system. The flower is shaped like the uterus. Mooreman reports that the
Haudenosaunee use "a compound decoction of upper parts and seeds for 'falling of the womb'" (uterine prolapse?) and a decoction of the stalks as a douche for "displacement of the womb." He also makes the mysterious and intriguing note that the Haudenosaunee "pass [the] seed over the genitals to bring about childbirth." This is an uncanny confirmation of information I've received directly from the plant about uses in inducing both abortion and childbirth that it is not ready to reveal in greater detail until I have worked with Skunk Cabbage for many years.

Skunk Cabbage seems to want to re-emerge as a medicine for our culture and our times much like a bear emerging from its den in spring. Tomorrow I go to dig the first Skunk Cabbage roots of the year. We'll see what lessons this season's harvest brings.

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.