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What is Lysichiton?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 12 December 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Lysichiton, also known as skunk cabbage, is a genus of swamp dwelling plants that contains only two known species, L. camtschatcensis and L. americanus, although some subspecies have been identified. These plants are members of the arum family and they are sometimes grown ornamentally, although more commonly people encounter them in the wild, where the roots are a food source for bears. Some indigenous people have used members of this genus as sources of food and traditional medicine.

These plants propagate underground, producing large, simple leaves that can grow as large as a human toddler in favorable climates. Specialized leaves known as spathes wrap around spike-shaped inflorescences. The spathes may be white or yellow. Healthy plants can produce a skunk-like odor that will linger even after the leaves die back, making skunk cabbage easy to find by smell alone if the giant leaves are not visible.

These plants prefer muddy, wet soil like that found in and around swamps, and will tolerate both acidic and alkaline conditions. Like other arums, they store energy in tubers underground. While Lysichiton species are not known for being particularly tasty, the large leaves can be cooked until tender and eaten, as was historically done when food sources were limited. The plants are rich in oxalic acid, a potentially toxic compound, and thorough cooking is needed to neutralize the acid before consumption.

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Preparations of Lysichiton were also used topically to treat burns and skin irritation. The large leaves were also used by native people to wrap foods and line baskets. Some legends about people eating Lysichitonleaves raw may be the result of confusion about the use of the leaves as wrappers; people would package food in raw leaves, and discard the leaves after eating.

People living in swamp regions or cultivating water gardens can grow Lysichiton. Because of the smell, it can be advisable to position the plants away from doors and windows. People react to the scent differently and some may find it mild or even pleasant, while others may be overwhelmed. The plants are perennial and will return every year, although periodic divisions may be necessary to prevent crowding. Collecting plants in the wild is not recommended, as this can disturb natural ecosystems. In addition, people who are not familiar with plant identification may accidentally harvest the wrong plant, and there is a risk of collecting a lookalike threatened species when harvesting plants in nature.

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