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Monday, June 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Skunk cabbage — touch it and you'll pay smelly price

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fresh and succulent — but smelling like carrion — they look like something from the planet Venus, with vivid yellow, satellite-dishlike blooms bright enough to earn skunk cabbage its nickname: Swamp Lantern.

Odiferous, luminous and dramatic, Lysichiton americanum graces low wet spots from the earliest wan gray days of spring into full summer.

Brush any part of the plant and its trademark skunky scent will bite the air. Bite back, and you'll regret it.

Like most plants in the Arum family, skunk cabbage is imbued with microscopic, needlelike crystals of calcium oxalate housed in specialized cells called idioblasts.

Each contains a large bundle of double-pointed, sharp, needlelike crystals called raphides. When the cells are ruptured by chewing or biting, the crystals are ejected into soft mouth and digestive-tract tissue like darts from a blowgun.

Take a bite out of some plants in this family, such as Dieffenbachia — an innocent-looking, common house and office plant — and you'll be struck painfully mute for as much as a day because of swelling and paralysis of the lips and tongue. It's no wonder: The enzymes at work are similar to a scorpion and snake venom, and the raphides that deliver it are crafted to punish, with grooves to drive deep into tissues and barbs to lodge there firmly as a porcupine quill.

It all adds up to whiz-bang protection from herbivores, who won't munch more than once on the succulent-looking leaves of skunk cabbage. As one of the first plants up in the spring, its tempting green leaves would otherwise be a sure snack.

The plant's stink comes from the same organic compounds produced by decomposing bacteria, including amines, amino acids and ammonia. The stench is another ingenious adaptation to the fact that skunk cabbage raises its head so early in the year, before pollinating bees are up and about.

There are advantages to being first: Trees and shrubs have yet to leaf out, so the skunk cabbage has the sun all to itself.

The bright yellow bloom of the spathe and flowers that pave the spadex, and index-finger-shaped stalk in the middle of the plant, attract pollinating flies.

The leaves keep their scent, even as spring warms to summer, and the leaves uncurl and expand to as much as five feet in length. The bulk and breadth of a single big plant could block a doorway.

As the leaves grow, they hide the yellow spathe that gives the plant its scientific name.

It combines the Greek words "lysis," meaning loosening, and "chiton," meaning tunic. Open on one side, the spathe encloses the erect white flower stalk like a tunic ruffled open by a spring breeze. The spathe eventually fades and falls, usually by the summer solstice, depending on elevation.

But even after its leaves die back in winter, skunk cabbage is still alive and growing: Its massive, contractile roots thrust and claw deep into the ground and store the sugars for next year's lush growth.

The flower spike, atop a stout stalk, is worth examining with a magnifying glass: It is covered with tiny white blossoms, each perfectly detailed.

The leaves are jacketed in cutin, a waxy substance that gives them a waterproof sheen.

Native Americans used the leaves for drinking cups, folding them and using the stem for a handle. They also made a handy sunshade, and were useful in all sorts of food preparation, explaining yet another name for this plant: Indian Wax Paper.

From lining berry baskets to wrapping food, lining cooking pits and as a makeshift plate, skunk cabbage was just the thing. The rhizomes, or root, were also dug and roasted, but this was early spring starvation food. Only bears are known to relish skunk cabbage.

Some sensitive souls have other, modern-day uses for skunk cabbage: Gretchen Lawlor, a self-proclaimed natural health educator in Seattle, recommends skunk cabbage for confronting "the great stuckness." Lawlor recommends diluted tonics of flower and plant essences, including skunk cabbage, to retune emotional and energetic vibes.

"It is a fabulous spring tonic," Lawlor said of skunk cabbage. "It steps forth out of the murk and muck and rot of the previous year, and really is helpful when you are blocked in an old mindset or attitude that is really not serving you.

"The rot is consuming you, and it is beginning to smell and ferment and preoccupy you so you are not able to see what around you is new and fresh." For her, the stink of skunk cabbage is a cognitive breath of fresh air.

To be fair, Lynn Havsall, director of the Camp Long nature center in Seattle, notes that skunk cabbage doesn't even smell like skunk unless its leaves are bruised. Kneeling deep to put her nose to a plant's white flower stalk, she gets a sweet floral — not skunky — whiff.

Denizens of the damp, skunk cabbage will never be found far from water. They thrive in sun but will tolerate shade.

Magenta salmonberry blooms, the delicate white pendant flowers of Indian Plum and pristine blossoms of trillium are its usual companions, each blooming just as skunk cabbage raises its brave yellow spathe as early as March.

Skunk cabbage can be quite long-lived perennials; a plant can thrive for decades if conditions are right. Abundant in swamps and wet woods at low- to mid- elevation in all of Western Washington, skunk cabbage spreads both by rhizomes and seeds.

It ranges from south central Alaska to Northern California and as far east as Idaho and Montana.

Havsall relates a legend of the Cathlamet people of Southwest Washington, who tell this story to explain why this plant is always found near water:

Before the time of the salmon, skunk cabbage was the only thing to eat. When the spring salmon finally arrived, they rewarded the skunk cabbage with an elk robe and a war club — that enveloping spathe and stout flower stalk. As a parting gift, the salmon placed skunk cabbage amid the music of the river — right along its soft, damp banks, where the soil was best.

Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

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