Is skunk cabbage poisonous?

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a plant that grows in wetlands throughout much of North America. It gets its name from the skunk-like odor that it releases when its leaves or stems are crushed. Skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to emerge in spring, even pushing up through snow. Its unique appearance and strange scent can make it seem ominous or dangerous.

Is skunk cabbage edible?

No, skunk cabbage is not edible. All parts of the skunk cabbage plant contain calcium oxalate crystals and should not be eaten. Calcium oxalate crystals are needle-like structures that can cause irritation, burning sensations, swelling, and damage to the throat, mouth, and digestive tract if ingested.

While skunk cabbage has historically been used as a food source by some indigenous peoples after extensive preparation to remove toxins, consuming the raw plant can be very dangerous. There are documented cases of illness and even death resulting from eating parts of the skunk cabbage plant.

Is skunk cabbage poisonous to touch?

Touching skunk cabbage does not cause poisoning, but contact with the leaves or stem can cause skin irritation, rashes, and swelling. This reaction is caused by the calcium oxalate crystals and acidic compounds in the plant’s tissues.

Direct contact between the sap and sensitive tissues like eyes can be especially problematic. The sap can act as a contact irritant, causing redness, pain, and inflammation.

Wearing gloves while handling skunk cabbage can help prevent skin irritation. Carefully washing any skin that comes in contact with the plant can help minimize effects.

Toxic compounds in skunk cabbage

Several different compounds contribute to skunk cabbage’s toxicity:

  • Calcium oxalate crystals: Needle-like crystals that cause mechanical injury and irritation.
  • Alkaloids: Toxic chemicals that can cause burning sensations, nausea, numbness, headache, and convulsions.
  • Calcium carbonate: A compound that reacts with acids to form crystals, causing injury.

These compounds are found throughout the plant, including the leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. Even water in which the plant has been soaking or growing can contain dissolved toxic compounds.

Effects of ingesting skunk cabbage

Eating any part of the skunk cabbage plant can have severe effects. Impacts may include:

  • Burning, swelling, and damage in the mouth and throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Dizziness and headaches
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Kidney damage

In severe cases, ingesting skunk cabbage can cause seizures, coma, and even death. If poisoning is suspected, immediate medical treatment is needed.

Treatment for skunk cabbage poisoning

If skunk cabbage has been ingested, the first step is decontamination – removing any remaining plant parts from the mouth. Inducing vomiting is not recommended, as re-exposing the throat to the irritants could cause further harm.

Medications may be given to help manage symptoms. Antihistamines can counteract allergic reactions while anticonvulsants treat seizures. Intravenous fluids help stabilize blood pressure and kidney function.

With prompt supportive treatment, serious outcomes can often be avoided. However, recovery may take several days, and some symptoms like gastrointestinal distress may linger even longer.

Why is skunk cabbage toxic?

Skunk cabbage contains toxic compounds as a form of natural defense. The compounds deter herbivores from eating the plant, protecting its leaves, stems, flowers, roots, and seeds from damage.

Interestingly, the plant seems to concentrate its defensive chemicals during the early spring when it is most vulnerable. Later in the season, toxin levels in some parts of the plant decline.

The toxicity also helps skunk cabbage thrive in challenging wetland environments by killing off competing plant species in the surrounding soil.

Is skunk cabbage toxic to pets?

Yes, skunk cabbage can be very toxic and even fatal to dogs, cats, horses, and other pets if ingested. All parts of the plant should be kept well out of reach of animals.

Pets who eat skunk cabbage may initially drool, vomit, or have diarrhea. Serious symptoms like seizures and arrhythmias can follow. Immediate veterinary treatment is vital.

Animals may also be poisoned by drinking water contaminated with skunk cabbage toxins. Cloudy white sap in the water is a warning sign. Prevent pets from accessing any areas with skunk cabbage plants.

Is skunk cabbage poisonous to touch for pets?

Touching skunk cabbage can potentially cause skin irritation in pets, especially if the plant’s sap gets onto the skin or into the eyes. Reactions are less severe than with ingestion, but rashes, swelling, and eye inflammation can occur.

It’s best to avoid letting pets come into direct contact with any part of skunk cabbage plants. Seek veterinary care if irritation develops.

Key points on skunk cabbage toxicity

  • All parts of skunk cabbage contain calcium oxalate crystals and other toxic compounds.
  • Do not eat any part of the skunk cabbage plant raw – doing so can cause severe illness.
  • Touching skunk cabbage may result in skin irritation, rashes, and swelling.
  • Skunk cabbage is very toxic to pets and livestock if ingested.
  • Immediate medical treatment is required for suspected skunk cabbage poisoning.


Skunk cabbage is widely considered poisonous and dangerous for human and animal consumption. All parts of the plant contain calcium oxalate crystals and other chemical toxins that can cause significant irritation, pain, and damage if ingested or sometimes even touched.

While skunk cabbage has been used as a food source with extensive preparation by some, attempting to eat any part of the raw plant is extremely risky and potentially life-threatening. Keep this unique but toxic plant well out of reach of children and pets.

If poisoning is suspected, seek emergency medical care right away as serious complications like arrhythmias, seizures, kidney damage, paralysis, and even death can occur. With prompt supportive treatment, the outlook for recovery is often good.

Understanding the risks and dangers of skunk cabbage allows this unusual plant to be appreciated safely from a distance for its distinctive springtime emergence and skunky aroma.

Leave a Comment