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The Practical Herbalist

Skunk Cabbage

As a child, the beginning of spring was marked with a stink. I loved to put on my boots and tromp through the mud in the woods. The first plant of spring was the skunk cabbage. This appropriately named plant announces its presence, not by bright leaves, or flowers but with a strong skunk like smell. As a herb, skunk cabbage is only found in the americas, and so its use as a medicinal was restricted to the varied Native American and late 19th century Eclectic herbal traditions.

To the average person, this smelly, ugly plant would seem to be something to stay away from, rather than view it as medicine. The herbalist however sees great potential in such a smelly plant. Many medical conditions are defined by a lack of movement of energy in the body. The best herbs for treating such conditions, contain a lot of volatile organic oil compounds. These oils are responsible for giving a plant a particular smell. The oils evaporate easily and fill the air. Our noses pick up these chemicals in the air and process them as smells and taste. Room air fresheners with oils heated by an electric current do the same thing. Many spices also contain high concentrations of these volatile oils. This is why fresh cracked pepper is so much more flavorful than the finely ground powder in the shaker on the table.

Any plant that can produce such a strong odor, must also have very strong effect when it comes to moving energy in the body. As it turns out, skunk cabbage is almost too strong to use. It is considered slightly toxic and only dried (weakened) roots were used in small doses for short periods of time for lung and pain issues. The root does not store well, and could not be used fresh because it causes severe vomiting. Because of all this, skunk cabbage has fallen into disuse in favor of herbs that are safer to use, and more shelf stable. Considering the toxicity, it is probably best that this herb does not have a more marketable name. We can simply leave the plant to what it does best, announce the coming of spring in it’s own odiferous fashion.

David Bock

This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"

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David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine

Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066