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For the Skunk Cabbage Aficionados

Back in March, the skunk cabbage bloomed, and I treated you to a skunk cabbage extravaganza. I also promised I’d treat you to a Seward Park skunk cabbage extravaganza, and promptly forgot. We’ll remedy that here, because skunk cabbage in bloom is rather beautiful, and it’ll make a nice contrast to what comes next.

Young skunk cabbage at Seward Park

At Seward Park, one of the main attractions is the skunk cabbage. There’s a whole marshy area full of them. And when spring comes, they push their spikes through and unfurl a little bit of botanical sunshine within easy view of the main trail.

Spiky botanical sunshine

The whole marsh fills with these little delights.

Skunk cabbage bonanza

And you look upon them, and breathe the fresh, sweet air, and think, “skunk, eh? Naw, they’re not so bad. They’re beautiful! Barely a whiff.”

Who you callin' a skunk, punk?

Right? So far, so lovely.

However.

I now know why skunk cabbage has got that name. When I was investigating the parks around Brier, Washington a few weeks ago, I found an inviting little spur trail going down toward Locust Creek. It’s one of those oh-so-typical Pacific Northwest tracks – you can tell it’s there because the plants are shorter on it, while the taller plants to either side lean in with that “Nice trail ya got here. Be a shame if anything happened to it” attitude. Bits are nearly overgrown, other bits are muddy or underwater, and the whole gives the impression it’s been abandoned for years, even though volunteers probably cleared it last fall.

Not the Locust Creek trail, but a close analogue.

Generally, these trails smell absolutely wonderful. There’s an undertone of clean wet earth, with occasional essences of running water. The blackberry brambles add overtones of elegant, understated sweetness. And there’s strong essences of leaves and bark and moss. Lovely!

That’s the way this trail smelled, until I’d got past the washed-out ponded bit that required some very fancy footwork, and began to smell something distinctly skunky. I mean, it didn’t smell like a black furry mammal with a white stripe had let its displeasure be known. known. That’s a particular and unmistakable stench. This wasn’t that. But there was a definite eau-de-skunk. It smelled rather like a group of plants wearing the essences of skunk glands as if it were an expensive perfume.

This tipped me off to the probability of skunk cabbage in the area. And lo! There it was.

Grown-up skunk cabbage

I’d read that skunk cabbage smells – well, skunky. But I hadn’t realized just how pervasive it is until I experienced it. And I’d heard of the enormous size skunk cabbage can attain, but when you compare March to May, you’re struck by two things: these plants are bloody ginormous, and they grow from zero to gargantuan in just a couple of months.

Thigh-high, many-feet-wide, skunky green glory

Amazing. Evolution produces intriguing results. Someday, I’ll investigate why skunk cabbage grows so large so fast.

There were some smaller examples, one that still had its spike, though without the yellow bits.

Adolescent skunk cabbage with spike. Kids these days...

These plants are edible with proper preparation. After smelling them in their full mature glory, however, I have to wonder how anyone discovered that. I can imagine only two possibilities: desperation, or a person with no nose.

Skunk cabbage at the age where it starts asking if it can borrow the keys to the car, even though it's too short to reach the pedals.

I found recipes. They look hideous. And I can’t find anyone who reports having enjoyed the result, so forget them. Gaze upon the glory of these leaves, try not to breathe their fragrance, and go eat something else.

Comments

  1. says

    Ulp. When I hear “skunk cabbage”, I can’t help thinking about H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out Of Space”, where the flower features in a small but non-trivial incident… ;-)

  2. Blue Duck says

    They aren’t bad, really!! I grew up above a skunk cabbage swamp so the smell doesn’t bother me at all. My great grandmother ground up the roots and mixed them with honey and gave the medicine to my older cousins when they had colds. Other Indians in my neck o’ the woods boiled the roots w/ licorice fern rhizomes, then used the liquid for cold medicine. Sounds delish, yeah??

  3. Adrian says

    I used to grow a lot of this family. I found them fascinating.
    I also grew Stapelias which have rotten meat coloured flowers and smell just as bad.
    I haven’t grown Skunk Cabbage, though it looks like a more colourful member.