Skunk cabbage: an antidote for all seasons

Winter scene: Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, looking north.

On March 14 I joined my daughter Charlotte and four-year-old grandson Henry for a walk in Stewart Park. A chilly wind had blown most people away. The water was jade green, and the lake’s surface was ruffled with frothing white caps rapidly heading for shore. To the north there was a fairytale view of hills, in delicate shades of gray, blue, and pink, sloping down to the lake’s edge. Henry was tiptop with zest, but my daughter and I were silent with unspoken thoughts about the pandemic. 

Stewart Park’s willows.

After checking out the playground, some parts under renovation, we meandered over the bridge to the inlet and sat on a bench while Henry tested his dinosaur boots in the mud and threw pebbles and rocks of different sizes into the water, analyzing plopping sounds, so satisfying even in troubling times. Seeking shelter from the wind, we decided to head into a remnant of forest between the train tracks and the park. Though they had not leafed out, the trees offered protection and companionship. In general, though, except for startling patches of emerald green moss, the forest floor was grey brown with matted leaves. In other words, there were no signs of life, or so it appeared.

Thing One and Thing Two.

We were following the blue-blaze path, which intrigued Henry. Sometimes he could see four blazes ahead and that kept him dancing forward while brandishing sticks, etc. But, looking at my feet, I saw a raised tuft of dead leaves with a hint of something maroon poking out. Aha! Of course! It was one of the first signs of spring, often missed because so early and relatively camouflaged. A skunk cabbage “flower.” Most people know the giant green leaves of skunk cabbage, which unfurl three feel or more in height in swampy, moist places, but these leaves arise much after the flowers when the weather has truly warmed up. They are hard to miss, because the leaves are so big and green and because skunk cabbages are so social. You rarely just see one. Like people, they prefer to congregate.

A vegetable penguin?

It turned that we had completely missed all the signs of life in the forest floor. There were hundreds of emerging “flowers,” little snouts poking out of dead leaves. The skunk cabbage “flower” is a composite structure known as the spathe and spadix. The spathe is a hood with a distinctive point, either left leaning or right leaning (a feature that is genetically determined), while the spadix is a yellowish, vertical column of male and female flowers inside the spathe. The spathe shelters the spadix, which is capable of elevating the ambient temperature around the flowers by as much as 77 degrees F*, which promotes the release of volatile oils that attract pollinators. 

Mahogany with dashes of gold.

Our walk had turned into an adventure. Watching our feet carefully, we investigated tuft after tuft of raised leaves while ooh and ahhing over new features of each new spathe. In most individuals, the maroon spathe was streaked with green and brown, sometimes a hint of gold. Some were taller, and some were rounder, each twisted in a gnomic fashion, fancifully odd. Inspired by these abundant signs of life, the sense of discovery, and the fact that buried treasure emerges when we least expect it, I said good-bye in much better spirits than when I arrived. 

On the way home I remembered that Thoreau often took note of skunk cabbage in his rambles around Concord, Massachusetts, though “rambles” is absolutely the wrong word. He was a documentarian of every detail of nature’s news, with a sharper focus than any wildlife photographer. When I was 16, my parents gave me the Dover edition of his journals, 14 volumes that spanned the years 1837 to 1861, totalling 1804 pages in Dover’s 2-volume edition, every page of which displays facsimile copies of four journal pages, so approximately 7000 pages in total!  Fortunately, the Dover edition has an Index, so I was able to read every passage, 42 of them, in which he discusses skunk cabbage.

Dover’s two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Journals containing about 7000 facsimile pages.

Throughout the year, he observed the progress of skunk cabbage, from the first tip of a spathe appearing in late February/early March to the dissemination of the nutlets (seeds) in the fall. His favorite locality was Clamshell, near the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook along the Sudbury River, now the site of the Emerson Hospital apparently. He often remarked how numb his fingers were on the mornings he took notice of their doings, but his greatest sympathies were with the skunk cabbages themselves, which he often found blackened by frost damage, their mandate having been to emerge whatever the consequences.

“Vegetable shells”

In 1852 , he asked, “What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man?” (Journal III, p. 437). The appearance of the spathes is surprising—like a magic trick done by a wizard or wizardess. Only close examination and even touching proves the reality of the situation. Like us, Thoreau was intrigued by the unusual color—the color word he most often uses is “mahogany,” but he also describes the streaks in various shades of yellow and green and how the colors change over time. The shape of the spathe seemed to entrance him. He describes the shape in various ways—often as “spear-heads,” other times as “vegetable shells,” or as “a little crypt or shrine for the flower.” The sinuous curvature compelled comparisons to “cows’ horns” and “the beak of a bird.” He marvels at how much “protection” they offer and how “roomy” the chamber is. It is instructive, companionable, and fun to accompany Thoreau on his skunk cabbage rounds. 

Skunk cabbage at Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, seen on March 17, 2020.

He also asks questions for which he has no answers, just as we did: “I find that many of the most forward spathes, etc., have been destroyed since I was here three days ago. Some animal has nibbled away a part of the spathes (or sometimes only a hole in it)—and I see the fragments scattered about—and then eaten out the whole of the spadix. Indeed, but few forward ones are left. Is this a mouse or musquash? Or a bird? The spadix is evidently a favorite titbit to some creature” (titbit is his spelling). We noticed some nibbles and wondered about which predators were afoot. Skunk cabbage are members of the Araceae family, which contains several kinds of calcium oxalate crystals that cause , when ingested, burning, swelling of the throat, and inability to speak. Carol Gracie, author of a wonderful book called Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (2012), advises against eating any part of skunk cabbage even after boiling. 

A page from the Dover edition, showing the arrangement of the facsimile pages from the original edition of Thoreau’s journals.

After years of gathering detailed observations in the field, Thoreau broadened his message on October 31, 1857. The occasion was noticing the resting buds of skunk-cabbage, already formed to spearhead their way up at the first sign of warmth in spring:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of their skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ‘em,” “Give it to ‘em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” –these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

Thoreau’s negative opinions about some aspects of human culture and society often drew criticism and still do—but no one is better than he is at encouraging us to be our best, to be “transfixed” with hope rather than its opposite. Few writers could write so beautifully about an “occult relation” between skunk cabbage and people. He earned the right to eloquence, having put himself in just such a close relationship season after season, year after year, and word after word–through close observation. 

*see Gracie, p. 157.

2 responses

  1. I just found the two volume Dover set on Abe Books and ordered it. Thanks for the lead! Up with skunk cabbage! Bob Nickerson

  2. Wonderful! You won’t regret the purchase. And it is so valuable to have an Index. NYRB (New York Review Books) produced a paperback in 2009 called The Journal 1837–1861, but of course it had to be edited heavily to fit the small size and there is no Index, which is useful even in a small book. But, NYRB paperbacks are printed on beautiful paper, so for traveling or reading in bed, etc., it is lovely, but to understand Thoreau’s work you have to hold it in its entirely in your hands!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: