On a Skunk Cabbage Hunt…

April 22, 2007 at 10:57 AM (Inedible pleasures, sights)

     This post is not a recipe, nor do I believe it has anything to do with gastronomic delights; however, I believe that the eyes need food of a special kind, so I share this with you!

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    Years ago, when my sister and I were growing up, our parents maintained a summer/vacation home about 45 minutes north of Green Bay. Although it was one of the first things to be sold and divided upon their divorce in our early twenties, I must say that it is missed very much still by both of us. The land was given to my parents by my maternal grandparents, and was just a small corner of the several hundred acres that they owned: some of it farmland, and the remainder fully wooded. During the summer, while we were on vacation from school in the city, we spent most of these warm days living there, my father joining us on weekends. Not only was it wonderful to be so near to our grandparents, (my grandmother being a wonderful cook and gardener of German heritage who taught and inspired me in many ways), but, for me, to be often within the immense forest that lay beyond the edges of the rows of corn. Our cottage stood at the gate between these two worlds, and I passed freely from one to the other.

    During these solitary wanderings, I developed a great devotion and respect for nature that, I think, no school could ever accomplish. I was most fascinated by wild plants, and owned, at the time, two handy guidebooks for identifying them that I keep to this day. In fact, back then I would not leave the house without them at my side, so, each time we ventured up there, into the a small suitcase they went, along with a slew of other reading material, and, with freshly-cleaned eye-glasses perched proudly on my nose, and my sister with her collection of crew-cut Barbie’s, we all took off with our mother in our 1970’s Ford station-wagon, to stay at the cottage for a week or more at a time.

     Within a few years, I knew every inch of ground within a half-mile radius of the cottage, which was sat on higher land and was accessed by a gravel-and-dirt road which ran along the corn fields from the main road. Surrounding two sides of the cottage was a dense stand of cedar trees, and beyond this the land rose higher until the trees parted to expose a clearing where milkweed, wild raspberries, black-eyed susans, and phlox grew. I liked to stop here for a bit: to tie my shoes or clean my glasses, to watch the sunbeams play lazily over the butterflies that gaily fluttered from flower to flower, or maybe to ponder a while. On the side opposite from where I’d emerge, the woods began again, here were deer paths that ran away from the clearing. They were easy to follow, and sloped steadily downward as they went onward and became cool and moist underfoot. New, strange plants emerged from the undergrowth here, the familiar plants of the meadows and roadsides becoming sparser, the dark, black earth more visible, until, if one dared go this far as I did, a glorious, shining, greener-than green sight appeared ahead: mosses covering rotting logs that criss-crossed in every way, forming a soft, crumbling matrix that exposed a pool of green water beneath. It wasn’t until I had obtained a pair of water-proof rubber boots that I could venture beyond vision into union with this place.

    The mosquitos would have been absolutely unbearable without a spray-on repellent; still, they managed to follow me like tiny, watchful guardians as I explored. Spiders hang webs here wherever they can to catch this flying feast. To move from the still quietness of the drier part of the woods to this, seems like coming upon a secret caterwauling party in the middle of nowhere. Besides the constant humming of the mosquitos and flies, there were birds that darted and twittered, and frogs that leaped without warning and grew fat on easy meals. It is impossible in all of this activity, not to notice a large, noble plant with splaying green-yellow leaves the size of dinner-plates that grows here in this hidden chartreuse world- and not beyond it… They can’t be mistaken for anything but the peaceful rulers, keeping some sort of arcane order and solemnly praising the filtered green light that pierces this cloistered place and reflects from the pool back upward to make them glow all the more vividly from my shadowed view-point. It wasn’t until a few years later, during a summer workshop course in forest management, that I learnt of their common name: skunk cabbage.

    They aren’t related to cabbages at all, in fact, they are related closely to arbi…..(“taro” as we in the states know them), and like them, are a member of the family Araceae- the Arum family. This particular plant is the only member of its genus, and is one of the oddest of plants in a family of odd plants. It flowers in early spring, before other plants have begun to grow, and even before it’s own leaves appear. Though the plant itself, at the height of summer, is not easily missed I can assure you, these early, short-lived blooms are known to very few who tread in wild places. The plant has the ability to raise its own temerature higher than that of the surrounding air, and in this way, is able to melt the layer of ice and snow above its roots to emerge and, with it’s single, maroon, hood-like flower, to lure carrion-feeding insects into it’s warm interior for fertilization. The whole plant exudes an odour not unlike garlic or hing when torn or crushed, and it is this that gives the plant its common name. Unfortunately, because the plant also has an extremely high concentration of oxalyte crystals- far, far more than the taro- the leaves must be air-dried for six months before it can be consumed; cooking the leaves thoroughly is not enough to neutralize this property, which, according to one wild-plant forager in re-telling his younger days, (when he added minced leaves to a pot of chile con carne and put it to simmer), caused an unbearable stinging sensation that had him rinsing his mouth for over a half-hour!

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    Edibility aside, the surreal blooming of a colony of skunk cabbages is a rare sight, and one that I have not witnessed in many years. Therefore, over this past weekend, I decided to wander about a nearby county park where, over the past summer, I had noted a few extremely sparse colonies of this amazing species of flora. I had to do a bit of searching through the low grounds of this gully-and-creek-divided park, but, in the end, I was not in the least bit disappointed for my snooping!

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To any readers that got this far: [sung in my best Marilyn Monroe voice] Hhhappy Earth Day….. to you…hhappy earth daaaay…tooooooo yooooooou…..hhhaappy eeeaarrrrtttthhh daaaaay….terra firma……..Happy Earth Day, to you….

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8 Comments

  1. Manisha said,

    Pel! This is an amazing flower! I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I will in these parts, at least! I was intrigued by this plant so I looked it up. It grows downward into the soil because of contracting roots!

    I am enjoying the imagery of this post! Oh the bliss of the forest! (Except that I must admit that I am brave only in my dreams and my mind. No snakes?)

    Well…actually there was a little grass snake- not venemous- I took a couple snaps of him too! 🙂 The only venemous snakes in Wisconsin are in the south- the timber rattlesnakes…I’ve never seen one. Snakes are rather timid creatures for the most part Manisha; they’re extremely terrified of humans, and will run…er….slither away as fast as possible- just don’t corner or threaten one and you’re fine! 🙂 Y’all got rattlers out there too I b’lieve! 🙂

    I actually dug a few up when I was a teen-ager- as much as i could that is….maybe 14″? They have the strangest-looking roots as well….almost alive with soft, jiggling finger-like-tentacle-like roots growing off the main tap….odd, odd, odd.

  2. Manisha said,

    Forgot to say that the first pic is like a psychedelic dream that becomes very clear as we go into the forest with you and find the incredible skunk cabbage.

    😀 Memory is like that…photo-editors help! I’ll see if I can get a few snaps this summer of them at their height in the swamp on grand-ma-ma’s land, and then compare it to my memory…I’m not as brave or foolish as I was back then; I try to talk a gullible, Off-coated friend in joining me just to be safe! (I’ll have ’em read this post first!) Both of my recent ex’s would have been game, especially the last one….pity! [flips through the new applications]

  3. Manisha said,

    One more: this is a very apt post for today.

    Happy Earth Day!

    (now we’re even…with the number of submits in a row, that is. Anita, top that! 👿 )

    Well, sometimes it just can’t be helped can it? 😀 Happy Earth Day to you too !! I didn’t know! Co-inky-dink… In fact, I’ll add it in to make me look like I’m on top of things!

  4. Anita said,

    You sing well! Very close… 😀 Happy Earth Day to you too!

    That was a nice little trip through the woods that were lovely, dark, and deep…But I still see no solid food! You promised a while ago.

    Manisha’s working on some prints for me – can I have one large one of the first please? I love the chartreuse…I’ll paint a wall to contrast.

    I learned a new word: caterwauling. Thanks.

    And BTW Manisha, Pel has the record – five in a row – but then he is in a class by himself. No point competing with him. Look at this prose! Poetry can’t be far behind! And he can alliterate too. 🙄

    Oh….Manisha blows me out of the water with her stand-up comic prose, and her keen eye for photographic composition…plus, overall she’s nicer than I am- she must be; she has a husband! I just have a space-heater… 😦

    5!!!? Oh, dear…that certainly merits a print! 🙂 How large? poster? I’m not sure how good the resolution will be; I performed the processing on the photo after I reduced it to 500 pixels….but I suppose that would just be part of the look… You actually want to hang this on your wall? And you are painting the wall a contrasting colour? Magenta? Very cool…. I always wanted to do a room in magenta, chartreuse and white, but my obsession with grey was in the way!

    Solid food is coming! The next post took a bit longer because I was working out accessories to la piece de resistance…celery is involved!

  5. Sajeda said,

    I love your blog. I will be reading it regularly
    saj

    Please do! 🙂

  6. Vee said,

    Wow, Pel. That is some Cabbage, I tell you! 😀 I will look out for these when I go nature walking next which is nearly not as much as I want it to be. Also, I am no where near as adventurous as you are. Rubber-shoes, books in a suitcase kind, I am not. I am more the ‘enjoying from a mile away’ kind.

    Be this your friend with the itchy tongue? 😆 seems like many people around willing to give it a try inspite of warnings. The itchy thing does remind me of taro leaves. Some taro leaves are too itchy to be consumed. It is ancient wisdom passed down from generations to break up the stem of a taro leaf, rub the sap against the back of your wrist and wait for about 10 seconds. If it starts itching, you don’t want to cook with those.

    Crew-cut Barbies… 😆 😆

    Oh yes indeed! Every one of them had a coif that was trimmed and trimmed until they were totally in fashion for the punk and new wave of the 80’s!! I wonder if she held on to any of them…hmmm…would make an interesting group portait! 😉 BTW, you remind me of her very much- ever give your dolls a hair-cut Vee? 🙂
    I must share this with you: when we were quite young, our first-cousin Terri stayed with us for a week, and of course brought along her new doll, that she was sooo proud of, complete with a few changes of clothes. It was one of those that you could press the belly and make the lips move and pretend to feed- I forget her name now; we were never very close. 😀 Anyway, late at night, after our cous’ had fallen asleep, my sister and I (it was more her idea obviously), decided to bring that doll of Terri’s up-to-date hair-style-wise…. The next day was not a happy one! Imagine going from cute, ribboned pig-tails to a hair-do that appeared to have been done by a high-speed blender….I’m having a hard time writing this because I am laughing so hard! 😀 The things our mother had to put up with! The folks had to buy our cousin a new one… I believe my sis acquired the first doll by default… 🙂

    That wrist test is a good idea! Better there than down the hatch… yeah, that’s the guy I found while doing some reading too! I want his book about wild-plant foraging… I have a book specific to my area already, but new information is wise… there was a plant deemed “safe” during the 70’s and 80’s (wild ginger- not related to ginger at all) the roots of which had a history of use by some of the local Native American tribes for seasoning food; in the early 90’s it was discovered to be carcinogenic! Best to be on top of things eh? (I used it once for a dish as it has an aroma not unlike fruity black pepper)The fragrance of the leaves of skunk cabbage, like I said, is a bit like garlic, so its pretty tempting to try them if your taste buds swing that way… I don’t blame that guy one bit!

    They only grow in places that are shaded and always or most often wet- not very conducive to casual nature strolls I’m afraid. If you go in search of them, have the bug-spray handy! 😉

  7. bee said,

    happy earth day to you, pel.

    Thanks Bee!

  8. outofthegarden said,

    Lovely photographs — gotta love the northwoods 🙂
    Linda

    I do enjoy traveling- though it’s been awhile since I’ve gone anywhere, but Wisconsin has its own beauty too I’ve found.

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