Love ‘em or hate ‘em, skunk cabbages are synonymous with spring in Whistler, and these distinctive yellow plants are now sprouting in wet places throughout the valley. The whole plant, and especially its thick rootstock, makes great early eating for bears groggily awakening from their winter naps. Since there is little else for bears to eat when they first emerge in spring, skunk cabbages form an essential part of their diet.
What appears to be a yellow flower actually consists of a lovely yellow sheaf (the spathe) which wraps around the distinctive yellow club (the spadix). The hundreds of very small flowers on the upper part of the club are responsible for the plant’s heady aroma. As is common in plants, the aroma attracts pollinators; in this case, beetles and flies who mistake the smell for rotting flesh.
Skunk cabbages grow in wet places through much of western North America and it seems unfortunate they’ve been given such an unattractive moniker. Only a crotchety Puritan could mistake the pungent and delightful aroma of the plant for a skunk – it’s the aroma of spring! Much preferable is the alternate name, swamp lantern, a name which better conveys the plant’s illuminating presence in wet places.
Skunk cabbages must have been extremely abundant before Whistler was developed, since the wetland habitat in the bottom of Whistler Valley is perfect for them. Anywhere land has been drained for development likely once supported these plants. Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of skunk cabbages and many can still be found along wetter sections of the Valley Trail and throughout other undeveloped areas in the valley bottom.
The generic name comes from the Greek for “loose tunic” and refers to the way the spathe (actually a modified leaf, or bract) loosely envelops the club. The leaves can reach formidable sizes, as long as 1.5 m, and were used by First Nations people like wax paper to wrap food and as a lining for baskets and pit ovens.
There are varying reports of the traditional use of skunk cabbage for food. First Nations people in Pemberton are reported to have eaten the roots, but Squamish peoples apparently used skunk cabbage only to prepare medicine. Other groups also ate skunk cabbage, but only as a last resort. The raw plant is inedible to humans due to the presence of calcium oxalate, a substance whose crystals can cause serious discomfort to an unwary diner. First Nations people discovered that roasting and drying roots removed the crystals and the roots could then be ground into a flour. Taro, the staple food of indigenous cultures in the south Pacific, is related to skunk cabbage (both are members of the Arum family) and is prepared in a similar way.
Skunk cabbages are associated with very wet, nutrient-rich sites, usually with some slow-moving water, and can be found in Whistler from valley bottom to subalpine elevations. Some people have proposed skunk cabbage should be Whistler’s official flower, and it’s hard to disagree since it’s a plant that loves snow and is so well-adapted to life here. Then we could perhaps lobby for a more euphonious, less skunky, name.
May 6 – Monthly Bird Walk. Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 7 a.m.
May 13 – Arbor Day. 9:00-12:00, with a barbeque to follow. We’ll be planting native shrubs and trees to re-establish habitat for birds and other animals.
Written by: Bob Brett