THERE IS NO flower more beautiful than the skunk cabbage — unless it is the skunk cabbage in the snow. This swamp-dwelling harbinger of spring is the first flower to emerge from our dismal winter. A member of the arum family, they are named for their distinctive aroma. Skunk cabbage produce yellow, knee-high flowers surrounded by a pallet of watermelon-sized green leaves.
Native Americans had many uses for the skunk cabbage. In her epic work, “Ethnobotany of Western Washington,” (University of Washington Publications 1955) Erna Gunther describes how the skunk cabbage was used for medicine, magic and food.
It was one of the most important medicinal plants, used as a general cure for everything from headaches, fevers and female troubles. Putting skunk cabbage leaves in a canoe out on the ocean worked like a charm to calm the seals, so they were easier to catch. The leaves were used to store cakes of dried berries before the invention of Tupperware™.
Skunk cabbage is poisonous to humans, but it can be made edible, depending on your definition of the term, by cooking. The roots were baked in stone ovens or boiled with several changes of water.
Serving tip: Once the skunk cabbage is cooked, place it out in the woods where no one will step in it. Mix the stones from the oven into the used skunk cabbage water for a flavorful soup. Throughout the history of this land, skunk cabbage has been a starvation food. Unless you are a bear. Just out of hibernation, bears consider skunk cabbage an ideal spring tonic and laxative.
The skunk cabbage was called “Uncle” during the time before salmon. That was after the melting of the continental ice sheet some 15,000 years ago, when there were no salmon in our rivers. It took them 6,000 years to get here. There was no rainforest. The Pleistocene mega-fauna were going extinct, as they did on virtually every other continent the stone-age hunters invaded. With no salmon, no cedar and shrinking big game populations, things were tough all over. This was long before we had the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife to blame.
As the legend goes, when the first spring salmon swam upriver, Uncle Skunk Cabbage told them he had kept the people from starving. As a reward, the salmon gave the Skunk Cabbage a war club, an elk hide blanket and rich soil along the river, where they live to this day. That would go a long way to explain the statuesque appearance of the skunk cabbage flower today.
The luxuriant, yellow blossoms of the skunk cabbage form an enchanting tableau in our roadside bogs and swamps that can be irresistible to tourists. When you see someone parked by the side of the road picking skunk cabbage flowers, you know that they are from somewhere else.
While the practice of picking wildflowers is generally discouraged in the wild lands of this great country for fear that the missing flowers cannot be enjoyed by other nature lovers, our tourist visitors are encouraged to pick all of the skunk cabbage flowers they could possibly want.
The legend of the skunk cabbage is as relevant today as it ever was. It is a symbol of the desperation of starvation in a land without salmon. With increasing numbers of our salmon runs being declared threatened, endangered or just plain extinct, we are in danger of losing them.
If we lose our salmon, we could be forced to go back to eating skunk cabbage or something worse. But we pray that will not happen.