Western Skunk Cabbage

Close-up of Western Skunk Cabbage at Alderbrook Resort

If you experience a particularly acrid smell in the woods at this time of year that reminds you of a skunk or the intoxicating smoke of something you knew better during your college days, it might be Western Skunk Cabbage. Also known as Lysichiton americanus or Swamp Lantern, this plant is unique in that it produces the largest leaves of any native plant (up to 5 feet tall!), and is the first to flower in the region. Its close relative, the Eastern Skunk Cabbage, creates heat to help itself bloom at this cold time of year, but the Western Skunk Cabbage doesn’t have this ability.

The strong odor might be the last thing you would want on your plate, but the bees, beetles, and other bugs adore its fragrance. Native peoples historically added the plant to medicinal concoctions to treat colds and sores, and used the large, waxy leaves to line berry baskets and the like. They also ate the cooked roots in famines, having said “Bear eats skunk cabbage, is just crazy for it, so it must be good eating, everything bear eats is good eating.”

But amateur forager beware, skunk cabbage contains oxalic acid, which can be extremely painful when ingested. Better off just taking a hike on the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalks of the Licorice Fern Trail, where the big yellow flower is a charming surprise for this chilly time of year.