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The Woodsman: Spring on the Mountain: Not-So-Stinky Skunk Cabbage Awakens

By Steve Wilent

The Woodsman: Spring on the Mountain: Not-So-Stinky Skunk Cabbage Awakens

It’s early March as I write this and several inches of late winter snow blanket the woods around my home.

Spring will have sprung well before April Fool’s Day. Since the vernal equinox on March 19, the sun shines on us longer each day until the summer solstice on June 20. No doubt some of our spring days will be warm and sunny, coaxing this year’s crop of skunk cabbage plants to emerge from dormancy and display their brilliant yellow flowers.

Western skunk cabbage is named for the odor it emits, especially when the leaves are broken or bruised, but the smell is far milder than that produced by its namesake critter. It’s a welcome scent that heralds fine weather to come. According to the US Forest Service, skunk cabbage leaves can grow to 53 inches long and more than 31 inches wide, making them the largest leaves of any native plant in the Pacific Northwest. The plants, which can be as tall as five feet, are found in swamps, marshes and other wetlands. You’ll see lots of skunk cabbages from the boardwalk at the Wildwood Recreation Site during spring and summer. I didn’t see any on a March 5 walk on the still-snowy path.

The authors of Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast write that most Indigenous people in the region used skunk cabbage leaves as liners for berry baskets, drying racks, and steaming pits, but they didn’t eat skunk cabbage, except in times of famine. However, the Oregon Encyclopedia, which is published by the Oregon Historical Society, reports that some Indigenous peoples relished the rhizomes, which they roasted before eating:

Some sources report that Native people regarded skunk cabbage as an emergency food, and some say that the roots were cherished. In an interview with linguist J. P. Harrington in 1942, Hanis Coos Elder Lottie Evanoff said that she very much liked skunk cabbage and found it curious that settlers did not eat it. “Bear eats skunk cabbage, are just crazy for it,” she said. “So it must be good eating, everything the bear eats is good eating.”

Skunk cabbage rhizomes and leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans, but roasting or boiling them and changing the water several times breaks down the acid.

Skunk cabbage flowers, harbingers of warmer late-spring weather, form before the large leaves emerge. The flowers consist of a yellow sheathing bract or pair of bracts around a spadix, a spike covered with tiny flowers closely arranged around a fleshy stem. Their brilliant yellow color has led some folks to call skunk cabbage flowers the swamp lantern.

Red elderberry is another spring bloomer and is one of the first shrubs to begin leafing out; I saw several of them breaking bud on my March 5 wander at Wildwood. By mid-spring, the branch tips will be adorned with bunches of fragrant white flowers that are both showy and important sources of nectar for butterflies and bees. By mid-to-late summer, these flowers will turn into small, bright-red berries. Although seeds of the berries are mildly toxic, the berries can be safely eaten or made into syrup or wine after cooking. According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, red elderberry was and is “a highly important food for the [Indigenous peoples] of the central and north coast.”

Blue elderberry, a related shrub, produces blue berries that are edible and delicious (the stems and leaves are toxic). According to the US Natural Resources Conservation Service, “The blue or purple berries are gathered and made into elderberry wine, jam, syrup and pies. The entire flower cluster can be dipped in batter and fried, while petals can be eaten raw or made into a fragrant and tasty tea. The flowers add an aromatic flavor and lightness to pancakes or fritters.”

Some folks enjoy pancakes with ripe blue elderberries as much as they enjoy flapjacks with wild huckleberries or blueberries. In any form, blue elderberries are high in vitamin C and also contain vitamin A, iron, potassium, and antioxidants. Sláinte!

Have a question about skunk cabbage or elderberries? Want to know what other common plant in our area contains oxalic acid? Let me know. Email:

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