Harbinger of springtime on the refuge: Skunk cabbage

<I>Observer file photo</I><BR>The bright yellow bracts of skunk cabbages are one of the earliest and most welcome signs of spring on the Northwest coast.

It has been a rigorous onslaught of a winter so far. Springtime seems so far away at the moment. Soon one of our first eye catching clues to the arrival of early spring becomes obvious sometime during February while one is out and about viewing certain soggy riparian areas represented by our local wetlands, including portions of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

Experiencing the sight of several husky bright buttery yellow and at the same time very showy bracts of skunk cabbage is a clue that winter is on the way out. The bracts emerge before the leaves. It is found poking up out of the cold wet swampy soils of many freshwater riparian.

Other associated harbingers of spring at this time are flocks of foraging robins in grassy areas, the flowering of introduced daffodils and budding pussy willows, even though at the moment it may not feel or look like it. Presently our landscape is pretty much in complete seasonal winter mode with the usual encompassing gray rainy skies and of bare limbed deciduous trees and shrubs scattered among the contrasting conifers all of which are blowing in the south wind. The sight of these buttery yellow bracts appears almost tropical-like in contrast to the surrounding dormant landscape. It almost strikes the observer of such a plant that you could readily buy from a nursery for landscaping purposes in your own yard. It is truly a highly visible native plant, being big and yellow like a sunny flag. Look for it beginning sometime soon just about anywhere out there growing in wet habitats in Pacific County.

Skunk cabbage is a member of the Arum family. In full Latin terms of classification this plant has been placed in the Araceae Family. It is further identified per genus and species as Lysichiton americanumn and is a perennial having thick creeping underground rhizominous stems which can form clumps of connected individual flowering plants scattered about in favorable wet areas.

The bright yellow flower bracts pop up out of the soil by mid-February. It usually finishes blooming by March or early April at which time a few very large leaves begin to form from a huge leafy basal rosette. These leaves rapidly grow into the largest sized leaves found anywhere out there in our surrounding natural landscape. Some large individual specimens of these leaves can measure four feet long and be two-feet wide - that's really huge for a leaf! It has an aroma slightly suggestive of what an agitated skunk could deliver, especially when the plant is in flower. Its fruits are berry-like and cling to the mature flower spike long after blooming. Its flowering scent alone isn't much better either as it emits a lingering almost sickening sweet aroma. For humans, this plant simply goes on looks alone.

Many of our native plants found growing on our wildlands are often utilized for food by various species of wildlife. Sometimes only certain parts of a plant species are edible while others are so desirable that they are completely consumed to ground level, and even the roots, by certain species of wildlife. Skunk cabbage is one of those plants that happen to be considered sometimes highly edible by omnivorous black bears. To a bear it's like eating ice cream for the first time after a long winter spent on whatever they can scavenge for subsistence. Foraging bears consider the flowers and the new developing leaves as a fine culinary repast. Early spring is an opportune time to see a black bear sitting on its haunches dining on a hapless, aromatic, but showy skunk cabbage. This plant had other uses also. It is said that long ago Native Americans used mature skunk cabbage leaves to line their baskets, but rarely used this plant as food. Possibly too much preparation time was needed to be spent on a food source of questionable quality and it may have required excessive leaching and roasting to be safe for human consumption. Now you can appreciate knowing that spring is really just around the corner when you happen across a bright yellow bract of a skunk cabbage and that finally a welcome changing of the seasons is now in progress.

For information about the refuge friends group, see (www.friendsofwillaparefuge.org).

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