Skunk Cabbage: A Harbinger of Spring

Mitchell Prescott and Annie taking a break. Image courtesy of Vivian Faith Prescott.
My dad and I load up his truck with binoculars, a rifle, and our lunch. We are heading out the logging roads to look for spring, meaning skunk cabbage. I get excited whenever I see the first skunk cabbage emerge. He claims skunk cabbage is a sign it’s time to go out and fish for spring kings, which is his real motive for taking me on this mini-adventure.
The pavement ends at the Tongass National Forest sign, after that there’s a hundred miles of old logging roads. My dad’s familiar with these dirt roads as he’s a retired field supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s in his late 70s and lives with me and my husband at our fishcamp. We often plan excursions to learn, photograph, and harvest from nature.

Snow melts, streams rush, plants push, rotten leaves become soil and the ground warms. A bright yellow plant pushes up. 

Rainforest crocus, muskeg lantern, and swamp lantern, are other names for skunk cabbage. Its scientific name is Lysichiton americanum, and in Lingít, it’s called X’áal’. Skunk cabbage is a bright yellow plant with big green waxy leaves. The leaves range from a foot and a half to four feet high. I’ve seen them even taller. Hundreds of tiny male and female flowers encircle a spadix, the protruding club that resembles a corncob. The long spadix sticks up from the plant shrouded by a bright yellow hood, the spaeth.

Skunk cabbage scent attracts beetles and flies. Pollen collects on their feet and wings as they fly from flower to flower and plant to plant, scattering flower dust.
As we drive the muddy road, we point out the telltale yellow of emerging plants in ditches and along hillsides. I’m looking to photograph larger plants. I roll down the truck window. The scent of skunk cabbage is enticing, though people describe it as a mixture of skunk, carrion, and garlic. To me it smells like spring. My dad turns to me and says, “I ate some skunk cabbage as a kid. I even tried the leaves. They don’t taste good.” I laugh because I tried it as a kid too.
My memory travels me down another dirt road in Wrangell, on the hill behind town. My sister and I often explored our neighborhood with other children. “Wild corn!” we shrieked when we spotted the skunk cabbage. What did we know? The only skunk I’d ever seen was in a cartoon. My sister was five years old and I was four. We slid down the embankment into the ditch. My sister snapped off a green stalk for herself and I broke one off for me. I stood in my rubber boots, ankle deep in black muck. Corn was our favorite. I took a bite.
Immediately a bitter burning sensation stung my lips and tongue. Beside me, my sister was spitting and wiping her mouth. We scrambled out of the ditch and ran crying toward home. My parents made us drink milk. The milk cut the bitter, peppery taste somewhat, but I still tasted that nasty stuff for a week. 
Deer walks gingerly, pressing her hooves into the muck. She nibbles the tip of the new growth. 
Unlike humans, deer and bear eat parts of the skunk cabbage raw and Canada geese love summer leaves. Skunk cabbage provides deer a springtime food, high in protein, a perfect meal after a long winter. Humans have to be careful, though, because calcium oxalate crystals make skunk cabbage inedible to us in its raw form: The taste is described as if eating needles.

 The nightly frost is gone, the warm sun beckons, bears emerge from dens. 

About 100 yards in front of our truck, a small black bear darts out of the woods near a muskeg and rushes across the road. We slow next to the bull pines where the bear had emerged. My dad points to the skunk cabbage nearby. He says when you’re out in the forest to keep an eye on the skunk cabbage patches. Often you’ll see where bears have been digging for roots, and because the plant loves wet black muddy areas, you can see a bear’s footprints. It works like a warning system for bears in the area.

My dad and I drive a few more miles, running into snow and ice on the road. We drive carefully and keep a lookout for skunk cabbage. Deer nip off the tops of new growth and bears eat the roots in the spring to help clean out their systems after emerging from hibernation.

Take notice of the bear's huge paw prints pressed into the muck. Take notice of the trampled green leaves, the deep holes where the roots once were. 

Traditionally, Tlingits used the water repellant leaves like wax paper for lining baskets, and locals still use leaves for lining ovens dug in the ground or sand, and for wrapping fish for steaming. Folded leaves can form drinking cups or berry picking baskets and leaves can be spread out as a food prep space. Dried and ground leaves were also used for thickening foods. The drying and cooking process breaks down the calcium oxylate, making it edible.

Inhale the warm earth, the scent of new growth, the mossy muskeg. Good medicine for the mind and spirit. 

Despite cautions for human ingestion, skunk cabbage has medicinal uses. Its healing properties are reflected in the Tlingit saying: * Yee yoo x’atángi áwé haa sinéix a yáx yatee x’áal’ a káx’ haa s’éil’ x’éiyi, which translates to: Your words are healing like the skunk cabbage applied to our open wounds. The roots are used to make a poultice for swollen muscles and joints, and for treating burns. People also use the leaves in sweat lodges. And when pressed to skin, heated leaves can draw out splinters and thorns. I’ve heard bears use the leaves too. People have seen wounded bears roll in skunk cabbage leaves in order to adhere the leaf like a bandage to their wounds. 
Hundreds and hundreds of flies buzz about the plants. The spider spins her web nearby.

At Earl West, the end of the road, my dad parks the truck. We eat lunch at a picnic table and afterward I spy a large patch of skunk cabbage nearby. Small sticks and dead roots from last year’s crop are ground cover for the bright, newly bloomed plants. I carefully step around them and then lie down. The ground is warm and wet. The plants surround me, eye-level, and with my camera I take photos of the plant’s insides, alive with insects. The smell is delirious and exotic. This wouldn’t be a bad place to breathe my last breath, I think to myself, with the warm spring sun shining down, inhaling the scent of skunk cabbage. 

Vivian Mork, co-writer/author/host of Planet Alaska 
Like the deer, I'm careful where I trod. I am like the beetles and the flies, drawn to scent and like the bear, I'm drawn to wet earth. Like my father I am drawn to travel the trails and dirt roads to search for wonder, to search for spring. 

*Paraphrased from a speech by Willie Marks, Keet Yaanaayí with translation help by Ethel Makinen, Daasdiyáa, and Irene Paul, Yaaxl.aat. Richard Dauenhauer and Nora Marks Dauenhauer, eds., “Haa Tuwunáagu Yís: For Healing Our Spirit, Tlingit Oratory” (Juneau, AK: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 1990).
**2018 Article appeared in the Capital City Weekly & online Juneau Empire: Planet Alaska  


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