Saturday, March 31, 2018

Skunk cabbage

AKA Swamp lantern

Lysichiton americanus, the western skunk cabbage.

Around the first of April, I start looking in swamps and wetlands, slowly moving creeks, along the spray zone beside faster creeks, soggy meadows; there's invariably a skunk cabbage in there somewhere. Sometimes, I smell them before I see them. The aroma is similar to that of a skunk, but not so sharp; it doesn't sting my lungs. Skunks do.

This clump had almost no odour, and was growing on a hillside covered in old blackberry vines. Looking for a place to kneel for a photo, I realized that underneath everything there was a trickling creek, which explained the unusual setting.

These are brand new plants. The leaves are still entire, the spadices (the yellow sheaths) clean. Only two of the flower stalks, the spathes, were mature. This may be the reason for their relative odourlessness.

Spadix and spathe. The flowers open from the bottom up.

Zooming in on the flowers. The brown and black marks on the sheath are beetles. Once the flowers mature, the whole spathe will be covered with flies and beetles, feasting and mating.

The plant is supposed to be edible. With caution. First Nations people ate it in times of famine; both the roots and the new leaves were used. But since they contain calcium oxalate crystals, they can cause severe irritation, so the roots were dried thoroughly, the leaves boiled in several changes of water. Still, adventurous modern cooks say they are spicy, and make for tingly tongues.

The leaves are used to wrap salmon before steaming; "they" (generic they) say that the salmon turns out fine.

I'd rather just look at the yellow flames in the wetlands.


  1. I wouldn't like a tingly tongue but the flowers look pretty.

  2. One of my favourite flowers (in nature). They always mean spring to me. - Margy


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