Leaves. - Large, becoming one or two feet long; heart-shaped, appearing later than the purple-mottled spathe and hidden flowers. Flowers. - Small and inconspicuous; packed on the fleshy spike which is hidden within the spathe.
If we are bold enough to venture into certain swampy places in the leafless woods and brown cheerless meadows of March, we notice that the sharply pointed spathes of the skunk cabbage have already pierced the surface of the earth. Until I chanced upon a passage in Thoreau's Journal under date of October 31st, I had supposed that these "hermits of the bog" were only encouraged to make their appearance by the advent of those first balmy, spring-suggestive days which occasionally occur as early as February. But it seems that many of these young buds had pushed their way upward before the winter set in, for Thoreau counsels those who are afflicted with the melancholy of autumn to go to the swamps, "and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year." "Mortal and human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year," he writes." Their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the weary shall be at rest. But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored. The circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets ? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it?"
The purplish shell-like leaf, which curls about the tiny flowers which are thus hidden from view, is a rather grewsome-looking object, suggestive of a great snail when it lifts itself fairly above its muddy bed. When one sees it grouped with brother-cabbages it is easy to understand why a nearly allied species, which abounds along the Italian Riviera, should be entitled "Cap-pucini" by the neighboring peasants, for the bowed, hooded appearance of these plants might easily suggest the cowled Capuchins.
Plate CII. Skunk Cabbage. - S.foetidus
It seems unfortunate that our earliest spring flower (for such it undoubtedly is) should possess so unpleasant an odor as to win for itself the unpoetic title of skunk cabbage. There is also some incongruity in the heading of the great floral procession of the year by the minute hidden blossoms of this plant. That they are enabled to survive the raw March winds which are rampant when they first appear is probably due to the protection afforded them by the leathery leaf or spathe. When the true leaves unfold they mark the wet woods and meadows with bright patches of rich foliage, which with that of the hellebore, flash constantly into sight as we travel through the country in April.
It is interesting to remember that the skunk cabbage is nearly akin to the spotless calla lily, the purple-mottled spathe of the one answering to the snowy petal-like leaf of the other. Meehan tells us that the name bear-weed was given to the plant by the early Swedish settlers in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. It seems that the bears greatly relished this early green, which Meehan remarks "must have been a hot morsel, as the juice is acrid, and is said to possess some narcotic power, while that of the root, when chewed, causes the eyesight to grow dim."