Skunk Cabbage

In spring the beautiful golden flowers of skunk cabbage emerge like lamps rising up from the dark swamp, hence its other common name, swamp lantern.  The giant leaves, which are called Indian wax paper, are used to prepare traditional foods. 

Other names: T?Su’kW (Twana), swamp lantern, Lysichiton americanum

What it looks like:  This prehistoric-looking plant sends up a green flowering stock with a yellow spathe in the spring, followed by enormous green waxy leaves that fan out in a basal growth.  Crushed leaves have a strong skunky scent.  The root has a central fleshy tuber-like bulb with many long rootlets that resemble a white sea creature.  The name Lysichiton translates as “loose tunic”, describing its bright yellow spathe.

Where it grows:  Skunk cabbage lives in boggy places in the Northwest from northern California to Alaska, generally in lower elevations.  The odor of skunk cabbage attracts flies, which pollinate the plant.  Birds and lizards live close to it because cattle and sheep dislike its odor.  Bear and elk love the roots and are said to plow up entire swampy areas to eat them.

Parts used:  leaves for drying and cooking food, roots for medicine.

Harvesting:  Skunk cabbage leaves are picked fresh and used as “Indian wax paper.”   Salmon is delicious when wrapped in skunk cabbage leaves, then poached on the coals of a fire.  The root is trickier to harvest.  Get out your rubber boots and prepare to sink into the mud!  Take a long shovel (even a clam digging shovel will work) and go at it, trying to pull up all the roots from one plant.  It might feel like you are trying to pry an anemone off the rocks.  The roots should be washed well, dried with a towel, then carefully dried in baskets.  Make sure to turn the roots every day to prevent molding.  Place them in a warm spot with good airflow.  Chop them up after they are dried.

Preparation: Tea – The root can be dried and made into a tea by steeping one heaping tablespoon per cup of boiled water for 30 minutes.  Drink two to three cups a day.

Traditional uses:  Skunk cabbage has a rich history of use as both food and medicine.  For Northwest Coastal People, it is considered a starvation food, and the roots were steamed in ground cooking pits.  Large older leaves are called “Indian wax paper” and can be used to dry berries or pemmican cakes on.  They can also be made into a cone like container to gather wild foods or water.  Luckily, the leaves do not leave a taste or scent on food they are used with.

Many Northwest Native People use the leaves as a soothing poultice for cuts and swellings.   The peppery root is made into a tea and is used for coughs, as a blood purifier, a kidney cleanser and to ease the pain of labor.  The root can be used to stop bleeding on surface wounds.  An ointment from skunk cabbage has been used for skin tumors, fungal infections and ulcerative sores.

Skunk cabbage root is specific for spasmodic and painful cramps, especially when aggravated by fear or stress.  It can be used for winter colds or asthma with bronchial spasms.  According to herbalist Michael Moore, skunk cabbage is specific for bouts of coughing that cause semi-vomiting spasms and stomach pain, also called “coughing/gagging syndrome.”

Caution:  The leaf, flower and root contain crystalline shards of calcium oxalate that can irritate the mucosa in the mouth and throat.  It should never be eaten raw.  Traditional cooking recipes recommend changing the water several times to boil out the calcium oxalate.  Overdose can cause gastric irritation, nausea, and diarrhea.