Last week, on a calm morning, I was hiking in the area of Robinson Lake. As I was walking down a path along a creek, I noticed an early spring plant which inhabited the woods by the stream banks. Surprisingly I smelled a lightly pungent smell, a somewhat skunk-like odor. As I bent over the yellow and green plant, I detected a slightly stronger odor.
Yellow skunk cabbage was what I smelled; it is a perennial yellow and green wildflower that grows in swampy, wet areas of forest lands. Skunk cabbage is easy to spot by its cone-shaped furl of leaves just waiting to bloom, and if you are not certain you can tell by the smell or small flies and other insects that are attracted to it.
This unusual plant sprouts very early in the spring and has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring.
An accidental misstep on a skunk cabbage will make its presence even more obvious as you catch a whiff of a smell that will explain the wildflower’s name. Surprisingly, the stench is quite beneficial to the plant’s survival. It discourages animals from nipping at its leaves and disturbing the soft, muddy wetland habitat it prefers. The smell also attracts bees and flies that act as its pollinators by moving pollen from males to the waiting stigmata of females. Yet, even without this odor-rific characteristic, the skunk cabbage certainly wouldn’t be without intrigue.
The common name, skunk cabbage (Lysichitum Americanum), refers to the skunk-like odor of the sap which draws flies as pollinators. “Lysichitum” combines the Greek words “lysis” meaning loosening, and “Chiton” meaning tunic, in reference to the large spathe or large bract enclosing the flower cluster. The species name “Americanum” means American.
The skunk cabbage is edible but has a concentration of crystals of calcium oxalate which can produce a stinging, burning sensation in the mouth when chewed raw. By roasting and drying the root, the American Natives were able to use this plant. The young green leaves can be eaten but must be boiled in several changes of water. Even these repeated boilings may not remove its stinging properties.
The skunk cabbage is related to taro, the staple food of the Polynesians. It also contains crystals of calcium oxalate. Members of the Arum plant family have been used throughout the world by many different Native peoples. Through trial and error, they have discovered that drying or heating removes the stinging properties of these plants.
While some consider the plant to be a weed, its roots are food for bears, who eat it after hibernating as a laxative or cathartic. The plant was used by indigenous people as medicine for burns and injuries, and for food in times of famine, when almost all parts were eaten. The leaves have a somewhat spicy or peppery taste and can cause a prickling sensation on the tongue and throat and can result in intestinal irritation when consumed.
Although the plant was not typically part of the diet under normal conditions, its large, waxy leaves were important to food preparation and storage. They were commonly used to line berry baskets and to wrap around whole salmon and other foods when baked under a fire. It is also used to cure sores and swelling.
Skunk cabbage is a vivid sign of spring and just one of the beautiful wild flowers in Boundary County.