Light the Candles

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Skunk Cabbage

Bog Candle, Swamp Lantern, Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus — whatever you call it, this northwest native wetland plant is one of the first to brighten our spring. It seems to light up the wet places in our woods and wet meadows at this time of year.

Skunk Cabbage has been blooming for a while now, but in our woodland seasonal stream it seems to be close to peak beauty this week. And despite the name, I’ve never noticed a particularly strong odor from the plants, even when I get up close and personal with my camera. That’s different from the eastern North American skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, which has deep purple flowers and a strong odor.

Skunk Cabbage spathe & spadix

The big yellow part of a blooming Skunk Cabbage is actually a modified leaf, called a spathe. This very showy part wraps around the spadix, which holds the actual tiny flowers. This form of inflorescence is characteristic of the Araceae, the Arum family.

Skunk Cabbage spathe & spadix

All those little yellow dots on the spadix are the Skunk Cabbage’s flowers, which have only the sex parts and no petals. Like many other plants, the first flowers to open are at the bottom of the spadix.

Our western Skunk Cabbage is native to all the Pacific Coast states and a few in the northern Rockies. Look for it blooming now, always in wet places. As the flowers fade away in the coming weeks the leaves will grow. By mid-summer some of the leaves will be up to 3 feet long if the conditions are really good. Most won’t be quite that large, but it’s still a big and showy plant.

You can see more photos of our Skunk Cabbage on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website.

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