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Mar 19 2012

Not Mystery Flora: Western Skunk Cabbage

At least, I’m fairly certain it’s Western Skunk Cabbage*. It’s skunk cabbage, anyway. Lockwood and I saw bunches of it at Sunset Bay.

Very Probably Skunk Cabbage

The reasons I’m treating you to a gallery of skunk cabbage are two-fold: I’ve been busy with a project all weekend, so I’m not prepared for writing up delicious geology. Also, Bug Girl posted this on Twitter:
found a bunch of skunk cabbage today! Hurray for spring! #signsofspring http://t.co/5rwIv4HZ
@bug_girl
Bug Girl
It's entirely possible I am the only person excited about finding skunk cabbage. But really, important early pollen source. #notthatstinky
@bug_girl
Bug Girl
And then Bora said,
@ OMG, I LOVE skunk cabbage!
@BoraZ
Bora Zivkovic
And I suddenly found a use for ten billion photos of skunk cabbage. Look, I was excited. Normally, I see the stuff at the end of its life cycle, when it’s all manky. And it was about the only wild blooming thing we found. Now I come to find out there are people in the world who love skunk cabbage.

Field o' Skunk Cabbage

This little marshy area near the beach was skunk cabbage central. Despite the name, you’d not have known it was there if not for the bright yellow flowers – it wasn’t smelling up the place. Yet.

(Suspected) Young Skunk Cabbage

I like the way it pops up through the soil in those sweet little spirals.

Young Skunk Cabbage

And then this demure little fold, before the big spiky inflorescence thingy happens. The entry on skunk cabbage in my Cascade-Olympic Natural History book says Walt Whitman “named a book of suggestive poetry after a similar species, Calamus.” Somehow, one is not surprised.

Skunk Cabbage is rather, er, suggestive

Our variety of skunk cabbage uses bees and beetles for pollination, and matches its scent to the pollinators’ preferences: different temptations at different temperatures. Evolution is bloody clever, people.

Skunk Cabbage Trio

Later in the season, apparently, these beauties will sprout maclargehuge leaves. I’ll have to look out for them. But, despite the fact the leaf bases and roots are edible, I don’t think I’ll be eating any. I’d prefer looking to lunching.
It’s quite pretty, and I’m glad I finally got to see it in its glory. I’m even more glad other people actually like it enough for me to post the photos.**
*I think we’ve established by now I’m teh suck at botany. So don’t take anything for granted.
**And if you like skunk cabbage enough to want a photo for yourself, please do feel free to download – Creative Commons with Attribution and all that. I should put an icon thingy up to let everyone know, as that subject’s come up a few times. You’re free to filch any photo unless it’s marked as belonging to someone else, and use for whatever purposes you like as long as you mention where you got it. Enjoy!

6 comments

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  1. 1
    dcortesi

    There was a botanist on NPR Science Friday last week or the week before, who mentioned in passing that Skunk Cabbage actually burns starch to warm its environment in early spring. Generates as much heat as a small mammal, she said.

  2. 2
    hotshoe

    Lovely photos!

    I saw (eastern) skunk cabbage when I was in the midwest, but I’ve never seen any skunk cabbage on the Pacific coast. Just now, I checked and its distribution is only south as far as Santa Cruz county (CA) – and I’ve only been that far north a few times. Too bad for me.

    Looks like you really do NOT want to eat it, as wikipedia states that it contains calcium oxalate crystals, which “can result in intestinal irritation and even death if consumed in large quantities”. Yum :(

    Interestingly, wikipedia also states that a common name for it is Swamp Lantern. That’s what I would call it; look how the flowers in your photos seem to light up.

    1. 2.1
      aspidoscelis

      It’s worth mentioning that a number of edible plants also contain calcium oxalate, including rhubarb (this is why you’re always told not to eat the leaf blades, but just the petioles – the petioles do have calcium oxalate as well, but not enough to generally be considered hazardous), kiwi, taro, spinach, etc. Calcium oxalate isn’t good for you, but (like a lot of other things we ingest) it isn’t much of a threat in moderation.

    2. 2.2
      Blue Duck

      But it is edible!! My Native ancestors from Oregon ate it in spring – dig up roots, cook to get rid of calicium oxalate crystals. The upper part of the root was preferred. Also roots were used for medicine for coughs in old days.

  3. 3
    tms

    Back in the Reagan administration, Skunk cabbage was listed as an indicator species for wetlands by the Dept. of Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers. If you had skunk cabbage on your land, you could forget about building on it, or developing it in any way.

    It was sad really, to see the inherent value of the plant overlooked because of its legal and political value.

  4. 4
    rikitiki

    Besides being the harbinger of Spring, Skunk Cabbage is what the bears eat when they wake from hibernation – helps restore the regularity of their digestion. So, when the Skunk Cabbage comes up, so do the bears.

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