An ode to skunk cabbage

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Childhoods are defined by a range of smells, both good and bad. Fresh laundry. School lunches. Dad’s cologne. Locker rooms.

Being a child of North Idaho, my upbringing also boasted a range of outdoor smells, some of my favorites being the warm alpine air at the top of the Lightning-Trestle Creek loop or the lakebed during fall drawdown.

Skunk cabbage in bloom. Courtesy photo.

There is one scent that can’t be categorized as good or bad, and that’s yellow skunk cabbage. Imagine my surprise when I attempted to Google the plant only to find out that “skunk weed” — what I have always called it — is not even remotely recognized as a nickname for the pungent, swamp-loving vegetation. 

After sorting through search results pointing me toward various strains of marijuana, I found its proper name: Lysichiton americanus or Western skunk cabbage.

Growing up near Denton Slough in east Bonner County, the first true spring day — one during which the sun shines long enough that it seems to warm everything to its core — brought on the sweet but unsettling scent of the skunk cabbage lining the boggy inlet. A drive to Clark Fork would confirm our suspicions: no black-and-white road kill — only shiny yellow flowers blooming just off the highway, large green leaves casting quivering shadows in the spring breeze.

I’m old enough now to smell the difference between skunk cabbage and a skunk that has met its end. What’s more, I now live with cabbage patches surrounding me on all sides. While spending the past two months at home, my constant companions have been the sounds of quarrelling geese, the sight of robins hopping across the lawn and the scent of skunk cabbage coming in on the breeze.

With a little research, the flowering stinkers went from facts of life to interesting local flora. The skunk-like scent is meant to draw in pollinators. Bears coming out of hibernation often consume the plants to serve as a laxative. However, humans should only eat the plants if they’re well cooked, as they contain crystals of calcium oxalate, which can cause a burning sensation when eaten — also, in enough quantity, kidney stones. Some research suggests that native peoples used skunk cabbage to treat some topical ailments, and they may have used the large, waxy leaves to store food.

I can’t say I see much need to go out and begin harvesting these plants, but I can say skunk cabbage has served one major purpose throughout my life: It signifies a changing of the seasons. It told me the snow in the mountains would soon be gone and the lake would come back to full pool. It told me summer vacation was on its way, and what kid doesn’t look for signs of that?

That smell, the one I cannot define as either good or bad, is one of the stinkier stations of change in the seasonal cycle of the Idaho Panhandle. Still, I can’t help but be grateful for the not-so-subtle reminder that summer is almost here.

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