Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one of our first native wildflowers to appear in Pennsylvania. Look around wet, swampy areas… and you might see a patch. Or, you might smell a patch. (They emit a strange, somewhat malodorous fragrance.)
Skunk cabbage is edible when properly processed. This typically involves boiling the folded green leaves (which appear after the flowering stage) in a few changes of water. If you skip this step, you will experience a strong burning sensation in your mouth.
Most sources claim that this burning sensation is caused by insoluble calcium oxalate crystals. Interestingly, however, additional research suggests that calcium oxalate crystals may NOT be to blame. Or at least they may not be the only compounds to blame…
Other members of the Araceae family (of which skunk cabbage is a part) demonstrate similar burning sensations… sometimes far worse and toxic. However, researchers studying these other species have suggested that compounds other than calcium oxalates — for example, a proteolytic enzyme — are the primary causal agents for this irritation.
Well, the leaves of skunk cabbage still require processing — whether or not calcium oxalate crystals are the primary irritants. And if you have never considered eating skunk cabbage, perhaps this will be your year!