Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Two weeks ago I developed a chest cold, and because I sometimes struggle with asthma, that means three weeks of coughing misery. Fortunately I have medication that helps. But I started to wonder what people did before the advent of modern asthma inhalers and treatments.

Here’s one old remedy I found:

Take the root of skunk cabbage, and boil it until very strong, then strain off the liquor; to which add, one table-spoonful of garlic juice to one pint of the liquor, and simmer them together. Dose, one table-spoonful, three times a day. (1)

My first reaction was, “yuck!” Anyone who’s wandered around damp ground and stepped on skunk cabbage knows why it’s called skunk cabbage.  It has a fetid odor some people compare to that of a skunk. But when I investigated further, to my surprise I found quite a few references to its usefulness. (Not only that, but skunk cabbage extract is still available for sale.)

Among the references I found was this old one:

The root of this plant is a very strong antispasmodic, expectorant, and nervine. It is used with great success in asthma, croup, and hysterics. . .and also in tusis senales, or that kind of cough which frequently attends old persons without much expectoration. (2)

Modern skunk cabbage extracts claim those kinds of benefits and more.

Indians used skunk cabbage as an expectorant in asthma. They also used the roots or leaves for a poultice on sores and swellings, and to draw out splinters and thorns. The root hairs were used to stop hemorrhage.

In 1820 through 1882, the dried root stalk and roots of skunk cabbage were listed as an official drug in the USP (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention).

Skunk cabbage extract by itself is beginning to look pretty good, but add to it garlic, and the above remedy looks better and better. Garlic has antioxidant properties and the ability to enhance the body’s immune cell activity. It also helps maintain healthy blood circulation. It can help lower blood pressure. Oh, and garlic is a good choice for killing and expelling parasites such as pin worms from the human body. (There’s a useful tidbit.)

The active component in garlic is the sulfur compound called allicin, which acts like an antibiotic to help the body inhibit the ability of germs to grow and reproduce. It's said that 1 milligram of allicin has a potency of 15 standard units of penicillin.

So I had to take a step back from my initial negative reaction to this old time asthma remedy. It may have been quite effective. The skunk cabbage extract might have helped the asthma attack itself, and the garlic would have prevented a possible infection. 

That doesn’t mean I’m going to gather skunk cabbage roots and whip up a mess of skunk cabbage asthma remedy. I can just imagine my husband's reaction to that concoction cooking on the stove. For now I’ll stick to my prescriptions.

(1)  Ladies Indispensable Assistant, F.J. Dow & Co., 139 Nassau Street, New York, 1850, pg. 12

(2)  The Domestic Physician, and Family Assistant, Marlin Gardner & Benjamin H. Aylworth, H. & E. Phinney of Cooperstown, New York, 1836, pg.34

Other references:

American Indian Medicine, Virgil J. Vogel, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University, 1970.

About Skunk Cabbage:

Extract for Sale:


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