One of my favorite harbingers of spring is the brilliant yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), which also goes by swamp lantern. Both names are quite descriptive and appropriate for this common wetland plant.
Skunk cabbage got that name because the blossoms have a slight skunky odor and the leaves resemble cabbage leaves when young. I’ve never found the odor of our northwest skunk cabbage to be particularly strong. There’s an entirely different skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) that’s native to eastern North America that has a much stronger odor and dark purplish-red flowers. The foliage of the two plants is similar, but ours has much brighter blossoms.
Swamp lantern is also an appropriate common name since the plant grows in wet places and has brilliant yellow flowers that can have the appearance of glowing candle flames in a lantern, especially early in the morning and at dusk.
Technically, skunk cabbage flowers are tiny, yellow-green and nearly inconspicuous. The actual blossoms are grouped tightly together on the spadix. That’s the knobby-looking thing (the bumps are the flowers), about as thick as your thumb and a few inches long, that sticks up. The large, showy yellow spathe is a specialized bract that wraps around the spadix. I won’t be offended if you just call the whole thing the flower — most people do.
Skunk cabbage grows in shaded fresh water swampy areas like marshes and creeks. You’ll want to wear your rubber boots to get close to it, or examine it from a footbridge or boardwalk through a wetland. The leaves and flowers emerge about the same time in early spring. After blooming the spadix withers away, followed by the spathe. The leaves continue to grow, sometimes reaching 3 feet in length and nearly a foot wide, but more typically 1-2 feet long and 6 inches wide.
Like many other plants with foul-smelling blossoms, skunk cabbage is pollinated by flies and beetles that are attracted to the odor. It’s also thermogenic, meaning that the growing shoots generate enough heat to melt surrounding snow and give the plant a head start on the season.
If you have a wet shady place in your garden you can grow skunk cabbage. A few specialty nurseries carry plants, or you can order seeds. Personally we haven’t had good luck getting plants established, but that may have been due to a lack of weeding around them.