I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about tarot and studying tarot lately. I’ve had tarot on the brain, even when I take my dog for our daily walks. It’s turning into a regular thing, these “Long Island Tarot” posts. I’m enjoying making connections between the cards and the natural world that is my home. So far we’ve had Coltsfoot as XIX The Sun, and Tuckamore as VIII Strength. Today: Skunk Cabbage as the 7 of Wands.
Symplocarpus foetidus grows in swamps, bogs, and wet places. This time of year, after winter has scoured all the colour away from the landscape, it is shocking to see these bright maroon hooks, the size of my hand, clawing their way up through clumps of dead grass and leaf litter. Just the dragon-claw flower is visible at first, then green leaves begin to appear.
By midsummer, the skunk cabbage will look like a large leafed out cabbage. Hence it’s name. The “skunk” part of the name comes from the fact that they smell remarkably like, well, skunk. They reek. Like rotten garlic and meat. It’s part of their attempt to attract carrion insects to come pollinate them.
The leaves of the plant die off in the frosts of fall. They shrivel and disappear under the snows of winter. When the snow melts, often the flowers are already there, waiting under the snow. This is because the plants actually produce heat, 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) above air temperature, and melt their way up through frozen earth and snow. Which is where I begin to tie these swamp plants to the 7 of Wands. First of all, Wands are a fire suit which relate to creativity and inspiration. As I said, these plants generate an astonishing amount of heat to melt their sex organs up through ice and snow – showing incredible perseverance in the ultimate act of creation. It’s aggressive in the way it forces its way up to meet the sun again each spring.
Another way they relate to the 7 of Wands is through the theme of resiliency and “holding your ground”. Instead of growing upward, like most plants, skunk cabbage concentrate their growing efforts downwards – by growing roots. Their roots are contractile and actually pull the the plant deeper down into the ground. Within a few years, it becomes impossible to dig one up – so tenaciously rooted. Some researchers believe that skunk cabbage plants, the rhizomes overwintering deep underground, can live to be thousands of years old, and keep regenerating year after year. That’s real steadfastness.
John Lust, in “The Herb Book” says an infusion of the fresh rootstock and roots is good for repiratory ailments such as asthma, whooping cough. bronchitis, hay fever, and congestion. Also “nervous disorders” and rheumatism. He claims some First Nations people inhaled the pungent odor of the crushed fresh leaf to cure headache.
While it’s not one of my favorite odors, I am always happy to catch the scent in the air in the spring time, as that means more vegetation is sure to follow. It is pretty amazing to think of these ancient beings slumbering beneath the moss and soil, pushing their way up through frozen ground with fiery claws. A Spring goddess clawing her way from the underworld to bring new life and green growth to the Earth – a fierce Persephone, her fingernails stained by pomegranates.