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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