Down at the cabbage patch

From an email by Jocie to the Botany Group on April 21.

Here’s a few notes I have put together about skunk cabbage. This is a common plant that you are all familiar with, but isn’t it spectacular? One of my favourite cabbage patches is in Roy Morrison Nature Park. If you enter from Embelton Crescent, cross the 2 bridges then turn left. The path curves around and the cabbage patch will soon appear on the right.

[Click a photo to enlarge it.]

Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

Every spring I visit the local “cabbage patch,” where strange flower spikes, protected by a bright yellow hood, arise miraculously from the inky black mud. Each flowering clump has fan-like waxy green leaves that grow to an enormous size. This exotic-looking, impressive plant makes a dramatic entrance in the spring that is not to be missed!

General description

Skunk cabbage is also known as “swamp lantern” due to the way it lights up the woods. Small flowers are packed around a central spike, the “spadix” which is protected by a yellow hood (modified leaf), the “spathe.” The spadix makes an indented pattern on the spathe that looks like rows of stitching, giving it a quilted look. 

The leaves are the largest of any of our native plants. They can grow to 1.5 metres long and 0.5 metres wide. The plant’s lowest basal leaves are a rich maroon colour. This colour is reminiscent of the eastern skunk cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus, a distant relative to our western plant, which has a completely maroon-coloured spathe. 

Maroon basal leaf

When the spadix is mature it keels over, and the pulpy fruits, each with a seed or two, fall off. The leaves, which have a high water content, begin to decay. By winter, the plant disappears into the mud. In early spring, the yellow tips of the flowers start to show before the leaves.

Skunk cabbage is in the Arum family, or Araceae, which includes popular garden plants such as Calla lilies. Taro, a staple food source for the Polynesians and one of the earliest cultivated plants, is also in this family. The genus name Lysichiton means “loose tunic” in reference to the protective yellow spathe.

Thermogenesis and the smell of spring

Skunk cabbage is one of the few plants capable of thermogenesis. New buds can produce heat up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to melt snow around the plant. The heat produced may help the plant disperse its strong signature scent, which attracts fly and beetle pollinators. 

The odour sometimes gives skunk cabbage a bad reputation when it is compared, perhaps unfairly, to the repugnant smell of a skunk.  According to Lewis Clark, “the whole plant has a smell of spring, of surging growth, and does not smell at all like the mephitic spray of the skunk.”  

Habitat and range

Skunk cabbage is a semi-aquatic perennial, and likes places with black mucky soil, such as swamps, ditches and river banks. It often forms extensive colonies, growing from a thick rhizome. It is primarily a coastal rainforest plant, with a range that extends along the coast from California to Alaska, and east to the Columbia River. 

First Nations uses

Skunk cabbage has long, sharp crystals of calcium oxalate which cause intense irritation and burning when consumed. It is best to avoid eating this plant altogether, although bears love to dig up and eat the roots. It was not considered a choice food for any coastal groups, but was used for many purposes.

Most commonly, the large leaves were used as a sort of wax paper for lining berry baskets and drying racks, and for layering in steaming pits. Some groups ate the roots after they were steamed or roasted (cooking eliminates the calcium oxalate).  The Kwakwaka-wakw dried and powdered the leaves to use as thickener for berry cakes, and the Haida used the leaves as a preservative for salmon eggs. 

In conclusion…

Skunk cabbage is a common coastal plant, and for this reason it doesn’t always get much attention. March and April are the best months to head to the “cabbage patch” to admire this most unusual and spectacular plant, and see the show before it’s over! 

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