Thursday, April 1, 2010

Easter Skunk Cabbage

At first glance Easter may not seem to have much basis in the natural world. You might think the ritualistic hiding of eggs a completely human construct. You’d be wrong. One only has to see skunk cabbage in early spring to know where this quaint tradition comes from. Mother Nature has been hiding little orbs in the herbaceous basket of the skunk cabbage flower for eons. Technically speaking it’s a spadix hiding in the spathe. These fanciful flowers look like they could have been trimmed from the magic slipper of a foreign prince long ago. But skunk cabbage is valued far beyond its obvious aesthetic contribution to the swamp bog for those whose tastes run on the wilder side.

Fresh crushed leaves smell like a skunk and have naturally occurring calcium oxide crystals which will cause a distinct burning sensation in one’s mouth. But for those who enjoy the taste of danger and long to nibble on nature, skunk cabbage is a tasty treat. Used properly it is reputed to be “quite good"but does require the capacity for delayed gratification. Tender spring leaves should be dried and then reconstituted in a soup or stew. Do not eat skunk cabbage leaves unless they have been thoroughly dehydrated first.

As always when eating, make sure you know what you’re putting in your mouth. Do not confuse the skunk cabbage with the dread False Hellebore. It’s poisonous. Do not fret. A little thought and observation should insure your safety. Look at the veining. False Hellebore has veins that run parallel to one another, while the veins of the prodigious skunk cabbage are branching (pictured above and right). You could think of False Hellebore as having bad stripes. Though less dignified, one may crush a leaf and apply the sniff-test, just as one might do with laundry on the floor. If the odor is rank, good. If not, beware.

I personally have not eaten this delicacy yet, but I will do so and report back promptly. Actually, prior to last week I didn't have a clue what skunk cabbage looked like in the spring. I was acquainted with the huge leafed monstrosity it becomes by summer, but the enchanting sex organs of early spring were a complete and utterly delightful surprise. Not only because I’d hitherto had no idea what it looked like, but because it is one of the first signs of spring in the bog and looks like a fantastical Easter basket.

[Stay tuned for Skunk Cabbage Installation The Second, in which I will report back on the yum factor of reconstituted leaf of skunk cabbage and discuss the hot temperament of this rebellious plant. *Though my tone may not be serious at times, I am in earnest as to making sure you know what you are putting in your mouth. Please consult field guides and experts, which I am not.* Today's technical info gleaned from Peterson Field Guides Edible Wild Plants Eastern/Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson and Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests by John Kricher both by Houghton Mifflin Co. published in 1977 and 1988 respectively.]


  1. i've read that you can also boil this wild delicacy, like you would boil fiddleheads, before chomping down the spicy tasty treat. alas, i've tasted the ferns, but not the cabbages so i have no idea how they taste ... looking forward to your next post!

  2. I also have heard that you can boil skunk cabbage the leaves several times pouring off the water several times to get rid of the calcium oxide crystals. I haven't heard how to make sure you've repeated the process enough, but boiling alone isn't enough. Fiddle heads are definitely simpler and simply wonderful, yum.

  3. Good luck with that, Annie. I agree that they are beautiful to look at, not sure if I want to do the taste test, so I'll leave that to you.

  4. I'm happy to take on the challenge, might be that I'm taking dietary dabbling from recreation to extreme sport!

  5. I read that only Western Skunk Cabbage has calcium oxide crystals, those are solid green with yellow flowers, but the skunk cabbage pictured is the kind we have in Mich - aren't they simply beautiful! I just took a nibble off one of the leaves and do not feel any burning sensation and the taste is more of a bib lettuce, far more mild than head cabbage. I'm planning to transplant these beautiful specimans to landcaping and indoor pots!

  6. Dear Anon,
    How intriguing, I had not heard that only some Skunk Cabbage has calcium oxide. I live east of you in Massachusetts and the specimens pictured are local. I'm hoping to talk to a local edible plant specialist soon. I'll ask her. S.C. will make a lovely addition to your garden. I have some shady spots in my yard but none wet enough or I'd be tempted to do the same!