In early spring, things can get smelly in the marshes of North America. Who is responsible? Not a skunk, but a plant named for one: the skunk cabbage. A swamp full of these plants emits an odor that permeates through the forest. The stinky smell is a cunning way to attract pollinators that flock to rotting things. Flies, beetles, and other carrion-feeders love skunk cabbage.
Western Skunk Cabbage Has a Beautiful Yellow Bract with Tiny Flowers
Smell aside, the skunk cabbage is a strikingly beautiful plant. In western North America, the Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton Americanus) is also called swamp lantern for its striking yellow hood. The tiny flowers are found on the central part of the spike, or spadix, while the yellow hood that looks like a yellow flower is actually a bract. Skunk cabbage also has large, oval leaves that are a beautiful and substantial addition to a pond or wetland garden. These leaves can grow up to a meter long and over 30 centimeters wide.
Western Skunk Cabbage Used by Bears and People
The Western Skunk Cabbage has an interesting connection to animals outside the wetland environment. The plant is one of the first to appear in the spring. Black bears will eat the root of the skunk cabbage, using it as a laxative as they come out of hibernation. While most parts of the plant were steamed, roasted, and eaten by indigenous people in times of famine, skunk cabbage should not be eaten raw. It can be very painful to the mouth, since it contains calcium oxalate. Skunk cabbage was also used as a medicinal plant for burns.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage: Another Smelly Marsh Plant
Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus Foetidus) is another member of the arum family, although it is not in the same genus as the Western Skunk Cabbage. The plant is slightly smaller than its Western counterpart, and it has a brownish-red bract. Those who walk through the swamp should take care around this plant, since its damaged leaves produce a strong smell. Another adaptation to its marsh environment is the odd root system that the skunk cabbage exhibits. Most plants grow taller as they get older, but the skunk cabbage roots contract, pulling the plant deeper into the wet soil. This makes them hard to remove from the garden and difficult to dislodge from a natural marsh.
Unique Wetland Plants Create Their Own Heat
Both species of skunk cabbage are noted for their ability to flower and pollinate in the very early spring, when snow may still be on the ground. It is actually able to melt surrounding snow by creating heat, a technique called thermogenesis. While scientists do not yet fully understand the way in which plants can create heat, this appears to happen as a byproduct of cellular respiration. Whatever the cause, don’t be surprised if skunk cabbage appears from under the snow, digging itself out in the early spring.
Growing Skunk Cabbage in the Pond or Water Garden
Skunk cabbage is grown in North America as a native plant, but it is also grown in Europe for its yellow bog flowers. It can be a cornerstone of a marsh or pond garden. The plant is stunning when grown by the water’s edge as a feature plant with leaves drooping over the side of the pond. Make sure that it has wet roots, though! Even those with pools of water in the garden can grow skunk cabbage, since puddles are its preferred growing environment.
Bringing unusual plants into the pond or wetland garden is a way to explore the diversity of species in the wetlands of the world. Skunk cabbage is a beauty, with exotic characteristics and large foliage that makes it a great candidate for the bog or pond garden.