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Lysichiton americanus

Lysichiton americanus

I perceive Lysichiton americanus in much the same way as Caltha palustris: a shallow-depth aquatic with a yellow inflorescence and thick, tough foliage that appears in early spring before most other native plants. I also have a similar affection for it — love at first smell, if you will — ever since I first encountered it along the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail in Mt. Revelstoke National Park many years ago.

Of course, there are obvious differences, such as the spadix and spathe inflorescence typical of the Araceae. The distribution of Lysichiton americanus is also more restricted, being confined to western North America.

And then there's the smell.

While some of my colleagues prefer swamp lantern as a common name for this plant, the oft-used skunk cabbage is far more evocative. I don't think there's any way to deny the skunky fragrance which can tease the nose from quite some distance away. The cabbage reference is a bit harder to defend, as cabbages are in a wholly different plant family, though the tough, large foliage does resemble cabbage. Perhaps skunk swamp-lantern is an awkward compromise.


Pity there is no way those of your readers not familiar with this plant, can see how large it can get.

Yes, the foliage doesn't grow to its full extent until later in the year.

A Google image search for Lysichiton americanus

And, of course, there is the eastern species, Symplocarpus foetidus (L.)Nutt., also called "skunk-cabbage" and in the Araceae, too, that has the similar fragrance, but possibly looks a little more cabbage-like. By the way, Daniel, I enjoyed a brief visit to the Garden last Friday afternoon, and Iain and I had a nice walk around, but I didn't get the opportunity to say hello. These daily plants are a highlight of my day, Daniel; keep up the good work.

Perhaps the referrence to cabbage has more to do with fragrance than looks. Anyone who walks into a kitchen when corned beef and cabbage are being prepared will nod at this point...Happy belated St. Patrick's Day.

mmmmm, How about just Skunk Lantern? I can smell it from here, 1000+ miles away. ;-D

Daniel, your photo brings to mind my own early experiences with skunk cabbage in Virginia. As kids, my siblings and I played outside every chance we got (back in the 50s. Now it seems most kids play indoors.) There was a swampy area at the bottom of a hill next to a big pasture where we played many long hours. Forest, hills, meadows, railroad tracks, a "haunted house," a crumbling trestle bridge and a creek. Skunk Cabbages fascinated us (still do) -- their appeal was probably a combination of the stinky smell and other-worldly shape. We'd break off the spadix and use them to "club" each other. I know, I know - it sounds barbaric, but heck, we were just playing! No one wanted to get hit with the skunky smell, that's for sure.

Skunk Cabbage, for me, is evocative of wonderful childhood memories --- perhaps the smell is the trigger, even imagining the smell will bring back memories. Smells do that to me, even stinky smells!

Lysichiton americanus - Z6 - RHS Index of Garden Plants, Griffiths
Lysichiton americanus - Z7-9 - A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, Brickell, Cole, Zuk

I think there are a number of us out there who think that Lysichiton is getting a bad rap. I'm the guy who calls this plant swamp lantern here in the garden. In my experience, the smell of an actual skunk is quite different. That is, initially head-snappingly strong, with a lingering eye-watering sting. The aromas produced by Lysichiton americanum and its Asian counterpart L. camtschatcensis are mild and merely sulphurous in comparison (yes, somewhat cabbagey). Maybe a happy skunk smells like this. The eastern North American Symplocarpus foetidus smells like something else, entirely. In this case, I think the skunk is getting the bad rap.

I remember this plant as a kid while crossing the fallen log over the swamp to visit friends while we stayed in our NW summer cabin. There was always the fear of slipping over ... and landing in the muck!

Who is the pollinator(s)? Are flies attracted to the smell?

Greetings from Downunder! I stumbled across your site by accident (or serendipity ) recently, and was immediately entranced. Although an ex-nursery woman and a very keen gardener, so many of these plants are new to me here in Queensland, Australia. I'm thoroughly enjoying each offering as it arrives!

It's the foliage that stinks. The inflorescences have a fresh aroma, like toothpaste.

Again, in early spring, my hiking buddy, Heidi, and I would run to Bronte Creek PP and various swamps around southern Ontario to photograph trilliums, the Marsh Marigolds and skunk cabbage. We often stumbled on them as we'd be looking for other goodies to photograph. Once you step on them, the unmistakeable odour fills the area with the pungent smell of skunk cabbage. Better yet, later in spring, we'd find the blackened spathe of which I have many photographs (slides).

My best skunk cabbage memories come from several summers ago when I was participating in a study of Steller's jays in the Skunk Cabbage Trail unit of Redwood National Park.

On one occasion, I got to watch a black bear march through the muck, literally ripping the hearts out of the "cabbages" and then eating them.

Another day, I was tracking a jay that we had radio tagged (believe it or not), when I got stuck in the muck in my waders. I was able to pull down a bunch on "cabbage" leaves and stalks and make myself a small, stable platform from which to dig myself out (after 45 minutes!).

This, we call "fun".

Great photo! As an artist I love the colours, that wonderful limey green (which looks like it would be smelly, especially as it rots!) and the reflected blue in the water, I also like the texture of the surface of the water, - tiny surface bubbles or pinpricks of submerged vegetation? Whatever, it's very effective, I have to keep going back for another look, thankyou again Daniel.

The eastern species, Symplocarpus foetidus, looks a lot like a cabbage plant later in the year.   The skunky smell is pretty mild, in my experience.  I don't have a picture of the foliage, but I have a pretty good picture of a spadix here.

For Maureen, how about Swamp Lantern? Not my name, I first heard it from Art Kruckeberg of UW, Seattle, and now that's the only common name I give it. Another nice plant with a lousy name is devil's club. Anybody have a better name???

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