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Skunk Cabbage
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy



Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.


April 14, 2002

Pity the poor skunk cabbage, perhaps the most chronically underrated of herbaceous perennials. While other plants hold back, protecting themselves against late winter's killer instincts, the skunk cabbage pushes its tightly furled fist of spring growth through half-frozen earth or derelict snow banks. Overnight, dreary late winter marshes and wetlands are illuminated by blooms lush and lovely enough for the tropics. Ones spirit lifts at just a glimpse of them, springtime harbingers, messengers of hope, symbolic of a marvelous hardiness and bravery.

And yet we call them skunk cabbage, or in certain places, polecat weed. “Although it is claimed that skunk cabbage is the earliest spring flower, ”wrote one pioneering author on wild flowers, “Yet we give that honor to the Dwarf Trillium, T. nirvale. Comparing the Dwarf Trillium with Skunk Cabbage is like comparing a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird with a Turkey Buzzard.” The stench of skunks clings to the plant, at least in popular imagination. But the evidence is equivocal at best. “All parts of the plant give a strong, skunk-like odor, but only when bruised,” the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture advises. “Nearly all of its mephitic odor is confined to its roots and enormous leaves,” writes another observer, claiming the flowering parts “are all but scentless.” George Schenk, author of The Complete Shade Garden (Houghton Mifflin, Boston) writes: “The skunk cabbages are slandered in their name; their flowers and leaves are not in the least skunky. But they are redolent of fermenting cabbage. . .”

I find the odor not so much offensive as pungent, redolent of the swampy ooze in which the plants so often grow. It is perhaps disagreeable to some people as is the aroma of manure fresh spread on farm fields.

There are two very distinct skunk cabbages. The western plant bearing the name is Lysichiton americanum, a native of the Pacific Northwest more happily also known as swamp lantern or yellow arum. A merry ribbon of them flourish at our place along the bed of a small seasonal creek. Their stout fleshy rhizomes plunge down through the streambed silt, producing large clear yellow flowering parts early in the year, followed by enormous green elephant ear leaves. In desperate times I ve harvested great bundles of the leaves for summer mulch. Nowadays I leave them for big banana slugs to feed on, and by summer's end the slugs have rasped the thick leaves to tatters. The smaller eastern version, Symplocarpus foetidus, is native from Quebec to Manitoba. Its spring colours are more varied, pleasingly mottled with purplish browns and greenish yellows.

Despite their bright show, skunk cabbages bear quite inconspicuous flowers. These cluster on a small stem shaped like a Keystone Cops billy club which is sheathed in a hood-like bract called a spathe. The bright colours are produced on the spathe, not by the small flowers within. The colours and scent of the plant work to attract pollinating insects, but just who these insects are remains a matter of speculation. Carrion flies, pollen-seeking bees and carrion beetles each have their adherents.

The alleged uses of skunk cabbage in the kitchen are also under dispute. Tales are told of indigenous peoples boiling the roots for food. But that insatiable stalker of wild plants Euell Gibbons, found the leaves “thick, heavy and foul” even after repeated boilings in different pots of water. He eventually struck on a passable recipe for a herb meat cabbage pudding, but its preparation involved more time and work than amending the Canadian Constitution. The plants are, howver, a food source for squirrels and deer, and the roots are said to be a favourite of foraging bears.

Notwithstanding its inelegant name, its alleged stench, and uncertainties concerning carrion flies and beetles, the skunk cabbage is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Many wild flower nurseries now carry the plants, which are easily transplanted.

In The Concise Encyclopedia of Favourite Wild Flowers (Weathervane Books, N.Y), Marjorie Dietz writes that Symplocarpus foetidus is “well worth planting in rich, moist or wet woods and beside large pools or ponds (either man-made or natural) for its early appearance in spring and later for the striking accent value of its large foliage.” Plantsperson Judy Glatstein praises S. foetidus as “premier among swamp plants.” George Schenk recommends them as “a bold plant for a wet place in the garden.” Turkey buzzard or not, this bold beauty is a harbinger of spring that we'd be the poorer without.

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