A Cape Cod Notebook 3/18/08

listenThe Stink of Spring

By Robert Finch

(A Cape Cod Notebook is now available as a podcast).

In the vegetable world, spring comes up with a stink. I'm talking, of course, about the common skun k cabbage. The skunk cabbage is no shy woodland violet, no fragile trillium, no delicately fragrant bl uet. It bores its way up out of the still-frozen swamp mud. It's tough, red-streaked, pointed hood looks more like a parrot beak than a plant. Its whole appearance and fetid aura seem designed to ward off rather than to attract insects. It doesn't even look like a flower, much less smell like one. It p recedes all the traditional spring blossoms, and in so doing proclaims an earlier and more basic meaning of spring: primal emergence.

Yet the skunk cabbage is as welcome and awaited a herald of the new season as any - perhaps even more so, because it emerges while winter is still dominant and offers its pollen to a bugless and be eless world. Since mid-February, in fact, the characteristic hood-shaped spathes of the skunk cabbage hav e been opening along the wet banks of the Cape's woodland swamps. Within these coverings are the plants flowers, insignificant yellow and purplish blossoms. The notorious skunk-like odor of these plants comes from its large, cabbage-like leaves, which unfold after the flower blooms and may grow as high as three feet.

Much lore and not a little fiction have been written about the uses of this unfragrant plant. The N ative Americans are said to have used the leaves as a medicine and the roots as a styptic to stop wounds from bleeding. Country folk continued to use the leaves as an emetic and as a remedy for respirator y disorders and rheumatism.

More surprisingly, despite its odor and very bitter taste, many writers have extolled the value of s kunk cabbage leaves as an edible green. Before trying this, however, I would suggest you sample a bit of the late Euell Gibbons' book, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, as a corrective to these effusions. Gibbons gained his reputation as a modern wild foods expert largely through his practice of actually prepari ng and tasting them first hand, rather than simply repeating the statements of his predecessors. This he does with skunk cabbage. Several burnt throats and reeking kitchens later, he concludes, "Maybe tho se authors know where the good skunk cabbage grows, but I don't." Nevertheless Gibbons persists and finally discovers what he says is a palatable recipe for - Skunk Cabbage Pancakes, made from the dri ed chips of the plant?s roots. I confess, I haven't tried it myself.

One other writer suggests that you can make an intriguing early spring bouquet of the hooded spathes arranged tastefully in a large bowl. The plants, he assures us, are "not objectionably odorous at t his stage." I haven't tried that either.

But perhaps all of these somewhat-strained claims for the uses of skunk cabbage merely express a conviction in us that any plant so brave and hardy must be humanly good for something. At least, it taxes our anthropocentricity to think otherwise. But unquestionably, the skunk cabbage, in its leat hery shell, is well equipped for the rigors of its early emergence - a lesson anyone can benefit from ingesting.