The plant has been used by Native Americans to treat bronchitis and asthmatic conditions. It has also been used to (attempt to) cure burns and other injuries including swelling of tissues. Other uses have treated rheumatism, respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, and dropsy.
An old Chinook legend concerns the yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) found in the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest. There, according to the ancient legend, the Native Americans could eat only that which grew from the earth. They knew nothing of fish. These folks loved the hot, peppery taste of the skunk cabbage that grew there; however, they had to boil or cook the leaves to remove the tiny needles of crystalline calcium oxalate.
For some obscure, and unwritten, reason the wise skunk cabbage felt that the health of the Native Americans would be greatly improved with the addition of fish to their diet so the skunk cabbage caused the first salmon run to begin.
The Native Americans soon discovered the run of the salmon and learned how to catch them. As a gift of thanks to the skunk cabbage the Native Americans gave an elk skin blanket (the yellow spathe) and a war club (the spadix) to the skunk cabbage. Over time these precious items have become a physical part of the very plant.
In his Journal, March 10, 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote: "At the end of winter there is a season in which we are daily expecting spring…Methinks the first obvious evidence of spring is the pushing out of the swamp willow catkins…then the pushing up of the skunk-cabbage spathes…" This references the eastern species (Symplocarpus foetidus). The second Latin word of the binomial here is, in English, fetid, meaning foul-smelling. Breaking a leaf produces a pungent odor that attracts its pollinators--hence skunk cabbage. It also attracts scavenging flies, stoneflies and bees. This skunk cabbage is poisonous to a degree but, if cooked properly, it can be eaten.
In "The Colour Out of Space," by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1927, we find the skunk cabbage is the topic of converstation early in the story. The narrative was written in the first person from the perspective of a Boston surveyor. In preparation for the construction of a new Massachusetts reservoir, the surveyor surveys a rural area that was to be flooded near Arkham, a fictional town. He comes upon a very mysterious patch of land and...oh, we do not wish to spoil the story for you.