Bainbridge Island, WA – Most of us easily recognize the distinct odor of an unhappy skunk. It is a smell one never forgets. As crisp April descends on the Pacific Northwest, this pungent scent does not seem to belong to the delicate world of spring. Yet one of the first blooms up in the forest is the dramatic Skunk Cabbage, a plant known for its strange appearance and scent.
Skunk Cabbage is not actually a cabbage, but an unusual perennial plant that pushes up a large yellow flower stalk (spadix) early in the spring, even before leaves appear. Also known as a Swamp Lantern, the flower stalk and hood (spathe) are a brilliant yellow, providing a welcomed splash of cheer in the dim light of seasonally swollen marshes and wetlands.
This alien looking member of the Arum family is like a missile warehouse, storing microscopic double-headed sharp crystals of calcium oxalate in special cells capable of ejecting them with merciless precision into the tissues of unsuspecting herbivores in search of a snack. Depending on the amount, calcium oxalate poisoning can cause everything from an unpleasant burning and numbing of the mouth, tongue and esophagus to damage to internal organs, and even death. Woodland herbivores will not make a return visit to this plant no matter how hungry they become.
The stinky smell that repels humans seems to attract insects, who love to visit the mysterious chambers of the hooded flower stalk and subsequently help in the pollination process. The odor producing compounds are the same as those produced by decomposing bacteria and can be found in both the leaves and the flowers. The plant is not poisonous to the touch, so if you are able, get up close to examine delicate rows of beautiful white flowers. See if you can identify any visible difference in the flowers as female flowers grow toward the base and male blossoms grow further up.
The leaves of the skunk cabbage grow to be the largest native plant leaves in the forest, reaching lengths of up to 60 inches. They also enjoy a waxy layer which gives them superior water proofing qualities. Native people found many resourceful ways to use the large waxy leaves, such as folding them to make containers or spreading them as the first “wax” paper.
As you explore the springtime forest, let your nose find new ways to wonder. Be aware of changes in scent as you move or stop to inhale the unique scents of marshy areas, alder or cedar stands, meadows and streams. Let the spring air tickle your nose with glorious wonder.
Cultivate Wonder… Discover Design
When and Where – Marshy areas that stay very wet year round.
Wonder Triggers for Young Trackers
- Native people found many uses for the big leaves of the skunk cabbage. Can you think of ways you could use the leaves at your house as part of daily living?
- Do skunk cabbage plants grow alone or in groups?
- Who do you think might try to eat the skunk cabbage? If you were a woodland herbivore, which part of the skunk cabbage would you try first?
- Most people don’t like the scent of skunk cabbage. Can you find a plant in the forest that smells good to you?
- The skunk cabbage is one of the first blossoms in the woods each spring. What other blossoms can you find? (look for white trillium, magenta salmonberry, white Indian plum)
References and Resources
Seattle Times – Skunk Cabbage, Touch and Pay a Smelly Price
Wild Arkive – American Skunk Cabbage
Image: Sharon Pegany Copyright 2018