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THROUGH THE WOODS: The skunk cabbage

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By NANCY JANE KERN

I LOVE SKUNKS and saw one foraging in a field just before our weekend snow and ice storm. It lumbered along poking its nose down in the sod and began rapidly digging out goodies to eat. This one had broad white stripes and a magnificent fluffy tail that could rival a Maine Coon cat. It was a beautiful afternoon with a backdrop of blue Catskill Mountains. I like to explore the roads less taken and I drove away from the skunk to a marsh full of skunk cabbage, another favorite sight.

Skunk cabbage. Photo contributed

Skunk cabbage is a very interesting plant with names like Clumpfoot Cabbage, Foetid Pothos, Meadow Cabbage and Polecat Weed. The association with skunks comes from the smell of the leaves which when torn give off the odor of skunks. Chemically the smell derives from sulfur-containing compounds called thiols which combine to form mercaptan. Skunk cabbage can be found growing in wetlands over a wide range of eastern North America. A most unusual characteristic is its production of strange flowers.

The first time I encountered them was in a marshy area near Ghent. They were horrible-looking life forms, like spotty maroon claws coming up out of the muck and ooze of the swamp. Childhood imagination is wonderful. My father forbade my mother, the plant collector, from bringing any to our dairy farm. He made a wise decision because the plants grow to form huge rhizomes that go very deep and are basically impossible to dig up and remove. They take over a large area, reproducing from seeds, and forcing out more desirable plants eaten by cattle and wildlife.

Another of the plant’s properties is thermogenesis, or heat production, and again reinforced the impression that some hideous monster lurked below the ground. The snow and ice had melted making a clear ring of green grass around each clump of the claw-like spathes. The skunk cabbage spathe is a pointed green/maroon spotted hood around the spadix, a stem of tiny yellow flowers.

The air was cold, and you could see heat waves radiating from the plants. The whole unit was about 4-6” tall and several formed clumps, like submerged “hands.” These plants can produce a temperature of about 60-95 degrees fahrenheit, and the heat and “skunky” aroma attracts flies and early emerging insects that pollinate the flowers. It is thought that the insects enjoy the warmth and shelter inside the spathe.

Indigenous Peoples must have observed these events for they thought the plant had magical powers. There is a claim that skunk cabbage is edible if it is properly dried and cooked. The raw leaves contain oxalic acid (like rhubarb leaves) which is harmful to eat, and the juice may cause blisters and burning sensations. This has not made them an appealing food source for me, and probably it is best not to try it, or consult an experienced botanist. A hazard of eating the skunk cabbage leaves is their similarity to the deadly poisonous false hellebore plant.

Later in spring, the beautiful green leaves of the skunk cabbage emerge, unfold, and take on its cabbage form. They make a swamp look pretty and add a nice contrast of color and form. Some people use them in water garden settings for this purpose. This is a very interesting plant to observe, and there are still some spathes visible in cool marshy areas around our area, as well as the just emerging and unfolding plant leaves.

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