Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wild Cabbage

A mature cabbage patch with leaves much too old to eat
The name Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) will never conjure up epicurean images of greatness but given my recent experiments with the young leaf stalks, I am encouraged enough to emphasize the vegetable epithet and leave out the “skunk.”  In the Bellingham area, the young leaves are just emerging out of saturated soils, standing water, and slow moving streams.  Within the next couple weeks, their yellow spathes will unfurl and add color to the wetlands.

A long Skunk Cabbage leaf stalk
I have been curious about the edibility of this plant ever since 1994 when my friend Owen fed me some Skunk Cabbage roots that badly burned my tongue and left me with sores for a week.  I learned the hard way that raw Skunk Cabbage is NOT edible.  However, Erna Gunther wrote in "Ethnobotany of Western WA" that the Skokomish steamed and ate the young leaves and the Quinault roasted the white part of the [leaf] stalks.  The Quileute and Chinook also ate the roots (although I am inclined to believe that the white leaf stalks, which extend through the soil for several inches, may have been mistaken by ethnographers for the roots).

Some leaf stalks are amazingly large!
Using my hands to scoop away the soft wet muck around the young rosettes of Skunk Cabbage leaves, I was able to follow the emerging shoots 4-6 inches down to the root crown.  The shoots that I dug up ranged from about ½ inch to 1 ½ inches in diameter and were as white as a leak stalk.

The roots don't look nearly as good as the leaf stalks
I have experimented with both steaming and boiling the leaf stalks and found that boiling does a better job of rendering the stalks harmless.  All parts of Skunk Cabbage contain crystals of calcium oxalate called raphide that painfully embed in mucous tissues.  Boiling cannot destroy raphides but it may fix the crystals into a starch matrix that prevent the sharp points from damaging our soft tissues.  Leslie Haskin wrote in her 1934 publication, “Wild Flowers of the Pacific,” that Native Americans in Western Washington cooked Skunk Cabbage roots with hemlock cambium and it is interesting to speculate if the starchy cambium provided additional substrate for binding raphides.  Another matter of speculatation is that raphides are most concentrated in the perennial roots and least concentrated in the new leaf growth, which may explain why the young leaf shoots were traditionally eaten.  After boiling for about ½ hour in two changes of water, I only noticed a slight tingle on the sides of my tongue.  The leaves have a mild flavor and substantial quality that is very similar to cabbage.

Chopped and ready for boiling
While I am still too inexperienced with this plant to give it my full endorsement, I am posting this account with the hope that other people who have eaten our western  Skunk Cabbage (which is different from the Easter Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus) will share their impressions with me.  If you are curious about experimenting with this plant, BE SURE TO COOK IT, only use the leaf stalks, and try a very small serving to see how you react to it before mixing it with other foods.

Warning: In some parts of the continent, the deadly poisonous False Green Helebore (Veratrum viride) also goes by the common name Skunk Cabbage. All parts of this plant are poisonous both raw and cooked.
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  1. Great info! I was just noticing how the beautiful yellow skunk cabbage flowers were telling signs of the coming of spring, but always thought they were inedible.

  2. I'm wondering about Skunk Cabbage Sauerkraut. It may be wild speculation but the prolonged pickling/fermentation might have a favorable effect on the raphide crystals. I would like to try it if I was in the PNW. Also some insights might be drawn from traditional processing of Taro roots. The invasive arum lily and skunk cabbage could maybe be subjected to the same process as poi. It wouldn't surprise me if there is some regional and population variation in concentration of raphides too.

    Thank you for blazing the trail on this one. The pictures look appetizing! You are saving us all unnecessary tingles.

    1. curious of the comment of taro, are you speaking of the root or the leaves. I steam or roast the roots, then peel them. eaten as cubed or smashed in to paste i add agave to sweeten it and add liquid same time, for the leaves I use a knife to start it and peel the stems skin to the rib of the leafs, very easily done. If not done your mouth will get so itchy and burn. I prefer meat and fish wrapped with the stems and steam. mmmm I'm hungry now Pua'Lani

    2. I steam it until the leaves melt and meat literally falls apart and fish nearly dissolves faint salting may be used no other seasoning, beef or game meat is already salty so no seasoning is needed.

  3. Thanks for the taro tip Alex. After some cursory internet reading it looks like the many species of taro are commonly cooked, dried, or fermented to reduce concentrations of calcium oxalate crystals. Table three in this paper shows that cooking and fermenting approximately cut oxalate concentrations in half.

    I don't know if the leaf stems are starchy enough to blend into a poi like consistency. I have been dehydrating a few and I just might try blending and cooking them, but the poi experiment might be most appropriate for Skunk Cabbage roots.

    I wish I had the chemistry tools to measure calcium oxalates and many other compounds! In the future I at least hope to have a budget for sending specimens away for lab work.

  4. I guess I will have to try and cook some skunk cabbage! I've never been brave enough to give it a go -

  5. Let me know how it goes. Thanks for passing along the link to your blog. I really enjoyed it and have posted it with my favorites for my readers.

  6. Just a cautionary note about eating skunk cabbage due to its calcium oxalate content. For anyone with kidney disease or those who form kidney stones easier than others, foods with significant calcium oxalate (or oxalic acid) content should not eat them. It can make their problem much worse. Most who have kidney problems are already aware of this but a note for any who may not know yet.

  7. What about the flowers themselves? Any experience with eating those? I tried a teeny bit of one raw, and got the very unpleasant burning sensation. Any experience making a flower extract from them? How would you do it?

  8. A YouTube video commented on eating dehydrated skunk cabbage on pizza. Dehydrating or baking dry the YOUNG leaves appears to neutralize the calcium oxalate CaC2O4. What has not been mentioned is the chemical formula hides the real atomic design. There are 2 Calcium atoms attached at the side of "TWO" Carbon dioxides (CO2)attached to each other. If heating and drying disrupt the chemical, and outgasses the CO2, then you could change the oxalate into Calcium Carbonate (coral, chalk, natural calcium), or into pure calcium (like thick leaves, sweet calcium rich collard greens).

    It makes sense to use the non-green inner stalks (like leeks), versus young and old green leaves (where the oxalate is present with the chlorophyll).

    For those with kidney stones, a acidic blood/body ph is causing the excess free calcium in the blood to make the stones. The solution, eating more calcium (alkaline rich ph) foods (dairy, milk, ...)!!! reduces these formations.

    As a young boy, I went to a Boy Scouts meeting, and they made skunk cabbage, and even stinging nettles, (and no I did not misunderstand their skunk cabbage for stinging nettles all these 50 years later)). I followed the same process, double boilings, fresh water changes, and I had big old leaves, and father ate the first batch, ... and never forgave me as it burned his mouth and stomach (had to eat a raw egg to coat his stomach). So (as said) only the youngest and most tender of leaves, with the smallest of oxalate, ... or dehydrate/bake until kale cabbage chip crispiness, and this can potentially neutralize the acid salts into carbonates and calcium.