Skunk cabbage is one of the “most remarkable plants in our province.”

Skunk cabbage brings commonality to continents

Many native B.C. alpine plants connect our flora to the tundra and high mountains of Asia.

By Dr. Richard Hebda / Royal B.C. Museum

Many native B.C. alpine plants such as mountain sorrell (Oxyria digyna) connect our flora to the tundra and high mountains of Asia. In the lowlands there are fewer species in common between these two continents.

Among these plants is one of the most remarkable in our province, the skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), known also as tellow arum and by the more evocative names of swamp lantern and Skeena lily.

This robust perennial forms modest to luxurious clumps of leaves reminiscent of the tropics. It is best known for the large yellow blooms that light up damp forest corners in the spring time.

Skunk cabbage grows from a short thick underground root-stem (rhizome). Numerous large white roots anchor the plant firmly in the muck. Huge egg- to lance-shaped leaves arise vertically from the rhizome. The leaves are usually shiny, bright green and waxy, but some populations are marked by dark blotches. The short leaf stalk is thick and succulent. Leaves unfurl in spring and remain up until late summer to fall when they flop onto the ground and die back.

Skunk cabbage is widespread in the coastal zone of northwest North America from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to northern California. Scattered populations also occur inland of the Coast Mountains from Washington State to the Peace River country of B.C.

Typical habitats include bogs and bog edges, swamps dominated by deciduous and coniferous trees, sloughs, ditches and lakeshores.

Magnificent stands of skunk cabbage crowd the channels and back swamps of the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland. The species loves wet places both shaded and sunny. The largest plants inhabit shady sites along streams, but flowering plants are most abundant in open settings.

B.C. First Nations used the leaves to wrap food, much in the way we use wax paper today. Leaves were also used to line berry baskets and steaming pits.

Ancient stories recall the importance of the roots, many times cooked and washed, as famine food before the coming of spring salmon. The leaves should never be chewed or eaten because they contain highly irritating calcium oxalate crystals. Leaf and root poultices were once widely used to treat conditions such as swellings, boils, burns and sores.

A sister species of our skunk cabbage, Asian skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) graces the wetlands of Pacific east Asia from the Kamchatka Peninsula to northern Japan. It is also known as white skunk cabbage because of the flower colour.

Asian skunk cabbage has been considered the same species as ours by some botanists, but generally does not grow quite as tall.

Like our plants the Asian skunk cabbages often emit a strong, somewhat unpleasant, odour; however, some populations reputedly smell sweet.

Although this species behaves itself well in its native territory, our skunk cabbage has proven to be a serious invader in northwest Europe. Having escaped their gardens it now clogs streams and other water ways in Scotland and England and is subject to eradication efforts.

As a final note, our native skunk cabbage connects us not only across the Pacific but also to the tropical island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Sumatra is the native home of the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) also of the Arum family, that produces the largest unbranched flower head in the world, up to 3.7 metres tall. This botanical monster also has that skunky “fragrance.”

Our species can only be described as slightly scented or evenly pleasant in comparison.

•••

Dr. Richard Hebda is the curator of botany and earth history at the Royal B.C. Museum. He would like to acknowledge Ken Marr and Erica Wheeler who provided useful advice and review of this article.

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Residents welcomed to The Summit in Victoria’s Quadra Village

Modern 320-bed facility designed for people with complex care needs including dementia

Victoria considers extending free transit passes for youth

Motion for extension of funding comes to council July 16

West Shore RCMP responds after reports of man masturbating on bus

52-year-old man charged with committing an indecent act in a public place

Saanich bans municipal rodenticide use after owl deaths

District unanimously approves ban and community education

Recent surge in COVID-19 cases not unexpected amid Phase Three of reopening: B.C.’s top doc

Keep circles small, wear masks and be aware of symptoms, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of July 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

B.C. NDP changing WorkSafeBC regulations to respond to COVID-19

Employers say reclassifying coronavirus could be ‘ruinous’

Statistical flaws led to B.C. wolf cull which didn’t save endangered caribou as estimated

Study finds statistical flaws in an influential 2019 report supporting a wolf cull

Beloved Island woman dies at 106

Dorothy Adair adored by the many people she met in Chemainus in two short years

Man arrested for allegedly pushing unsuspecting seniors, jumping on cars at Parksville mall

Cops arrest man after ‘aggressive incident’ at Wembley Mall in Parksville

B.C. man who went by ‘Doctor Ray Gaglardi’ charged with sex assault of teenage boys

The man, 75, is accused of assaulting teenage boys he met through Coquitlam-area churches

B.C.’s potential deficit $12.5 billion as spending spikes, taxes drop

Finance Minister Carole James gives COVID-19 outlook

Canadians torn on scaling back COVID-19 benefits to save money: poll

Of those surveyed, 78 per cent said they were worried about the size of the deficit

Most Read