American Skunk Cabbage; Lysichiton americanus

I saw lots of this in Canada…. British Columbia and very nice it was, however I recently came across some growing in a region of Monmouthshire, Wales. If anything it looked slightly bigger and more lush than it did in Canada, perhaps this was something to do with all the other vegetation….. in Canada it has to compete with towering Redwoods, but just up from the river Wye, the vegetation is less impressive, it was mostly a tangle of hazel, overcrowded Conifers and small Oaks. Nice enough but not so awe inspiring.

Whitebrook where this was growing is a narrow valley leading down to the river Wye, tumbling down with little waterfalls and moss covered boulders. It also has some spectacular houses and with a stream running down through the properties, some owners have over the years put in dams and created little, pools and lakes, all very nice and no doubt great for the wildlife. And one or two have planted some exotic plants, like Greater Butterbur, Winter Heliotrope, one called Indian Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) and a couple of properties have some Skunk Cabbage.

Now it is spreading and it is not restricted to the areas where it was first planted. This  photograph  was taken from the road, the plants were literally just a foot from the tarmac.

Well you can’t stop people planting exotic species in their gardens but maybe if they were made more aware of the damage they can do then they might think twice.

Now Skunk Cabbage is fairly well established in lots of locations in the UK particularly in the south. I am somewhat surprised that folks would want to plant this in their garden, the clue is in the name and it does smell quite strongly and not very pleasant. I have read that some varieties sold by garden centers in the UK do not smell so much. Well the ones in Whitebrook smell a lot. I parked my vehicle a little way up from where they were growing because the road is narrow in places and when I opened the door to walk down and take some photographs I could immediately smell the plants. The smell is to attract flies for pollination, rather like Lords and Ladies to which it is related.

In Canada the smell attracts the Bears and they eat it. I remember seeing lots of warnings throughout our trip to British Columbia, not just about Bears but also Wolves, Coyotes and Cougars or Mountain Lions.  One warning said to look out for Skunk Cabbage and if it had been eaten then probably Bears were in the vicinity.  We did see lots of Bears both Brown Bears and Grizzly bears but they seemed to be more interested in eating Dandelion flowers at that time of year. Here are some Canadian skunk cabbage photos.

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Well back to the Biology of Skunk Cabbage, it has a remarkable ability to produce heat. All living things will produce some heat, this is a by product of any metabolic process thus you will see that if it snows when crocus plants are in bloom then the snow when it melts will always melt first from around the flower, leaving the flower sticking out of a little hole in the snow. Now Skunk Cabbage takes this to extremes, it can produce temperature of between 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) above air temperature  good to melt a hole in Canadian snows! also some think this increased temperature may help to spread the foul smell and thus attract more pollinating insects.

If you look carefully at the spadix (the upright bit at the centre of the cowl) then you can see it is made up of individual units, these are all petal less flowers, so it is different to the spadix of its relative Lords and Ladies. In that plant the flowers are below the spadix and contained in the swollen up region below the cowl. So pollination in the case of Skunk Cabbage is a less complicated and more random procedure… that does not necessarily make it less efficient. The seed pod is also quite different to the red berries of Lords and Ladies, I have not seen the fruit or berries of this Skunk Cabbage but the few photos that do show it  are of a knobbly green structure with little red bumps on each fruit… If anyone knows more or has a photo then please contact me. I will keep an eye on my local population and see what develops. I suspect that seed production is not that common in the UK.

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