If you were to ask me about a favorite flower, I’d first have to describe a location, one which has become a visual sanctuary. The spot is swampy and is part of the matrix of waters feeding a small lake in the interior of the Panhandle of Idaho. A trail passes along the western edge of the lake beneath ancient cedars, rotting birches; over beaver-felled trees and on through the swamp. In the summer, huge skunk cabbages border a section of the trail, their waist-high leaves a brilliant and lush jungle green. In winter, no evidence of that luxuriant growth remains but buried in the refrigerated mud, their roots await a beckoning to begin the renewal process. I come often to this spot, absorbing its moods, soaking up the silence, examining changes.
As I face east across the pond, a steep talus slope rises up directly behind me forcing animals to pass close to the edge of the swamp and record their tracks on the broad, boggy trail. It is here I witness the mosaic of prints laid down through the year. Each season bids my return to read its impressions. Black bear, cougar, bobcat, moose and our neighbors’ dogs join the abundant whitetail deer who leave their sign in these wet-woods.
I have always been drawn to the enormous skunk cabbage plants that grow trailside and value them for diverse reasons. In spring, their skunky odor fills the air with its spicy fragrance and in the summer, their green leaves add a cooling freshness to a hot journey.
Researching my botanical library, I found that the skunk cabbage is related to the taro plant, for thousands of years a staple in Oriental and Polynesian cooking. Heating the taro removes the taste of the bitter calcium oxalate crystals also found in all parts of the skunk cabbage. The fresh roots and leaves of the skunk cabbage are also boiled to eliminate the acrid taste of their crystals. If ingested raw, an intense irritation and burning of the mucous membranes might occur. However, the peppery sap is a folk remedy for the treatment of ringworm and assists in relieving painful sores.
North American Indians ground up dried and roasted skunk cabbage root and made it into a flour. They used this flour as a treatment for asthmatic and bronchial spasms. Inhaling its crushed leaves helped stop a headache. Skunk cabbage leaves were used as a disposable dish, as a covering for food in their earthen ovens or and as a covering wrap to carry food similar to our using wax paper. Modern herbalists use tinctures of Lysichiton americanus as an antispasmodic and to promote normal function of the nervous system. It’s very doubtful I will ever voluntarily prepare the skunk cabbage for food; however, I may dig a root for it’s medicinal value.
By some chemical wizardry, probably related to the calcium oxalate, the skunk cabbage can melt its way through ice to become the earliest of sprouts on which bear and beaver feed. A thick, fleshy flower spike surrounded by a pale yellow spathe rises through last year’s dead growth and pond muck, adding a candle-like spot of brightness to the landscape of gray alders and dead cedars. Inside this partly rolled flower covering are hundreds of minute flowers. Their exotic, skunky odor draws pollinating flies.
The large leaves (over three feet long and a foot wide) emerge later and along with ferns, miner’s lettuce and nettles, will fill this swamp with their lush foliage. Although the smell and name of the plant may strike some as offensive, it describes a truly unique plant of our wet-woods habitat. Its flesh provides food for the hungry, its leaves provide shade and nutrients for the ecosystem and its exotic nature attracts poets, photographers and painters.
At some inner level of knowing, I feel our living earth actuates her seasonal dance dressed as the skunk cabbage. Stimulated by the energies of winter solstice, she spirals upward through the snow and ice-covered pond muck to begin her dance of creation and color, setting the scene for spring. As the days lengthen and the temperatures warm, her verdant robes unfurl to shade the bog and keep her root zone moist from the summer’s heat. She’ll dance until the autumn urges rest and the fall rains rot her gown, then; safely asleep in the muck of the pond, the swamp candle will slumber until the renewal energies of late winter stir her to wake and rise, beckoning the Earth Mother to dance once again.