Lysichiton americanus, the Western Skunk Cabbage, with its enormous bright green leaves and large yellow spathes, is a show-stopping semi-aquatic aroid that deserves to be planted more widely. An essential plant for anyone with a bog-garden or pond it can also be used more experimentally, particularly in damp muddy patches or in combination with other moisture-loving large-leaved plants like Musa or Colocasia.
There is something quite special about seeing such an extraordinary-looking plant rise up every Spring out of a unpromising puddle of mud and every year - growing ever-bigger - Lysichiton americanus certainly delivers. The bright yellow inflorescences - which grow directly from the rhizome - seem to glow with a luminous beauty as they lift themselves impishly out of the mud and open into the still cold March air with a cheerful presence. Not surprisingly, one of it common names in the Pacific Northwest where it comes from is Swamp Lantern. The large sail-like leaves that follow are similar to an Alocasia but considerably more tolerant of cold than their more tropical cousins. On very old specimens a leaf that reaches three or even four feet high is not unheard of. As the Spring turns to Summer, the inflorescences die back and are lost under the increasingly luxuriant foliage from which the catkin-like infructesences can be occasionally glimpsed.
Skunk cabbage is perhaps an unfortunate name for such a magnificent plant. There is a certain distinctive indoloid odour associated with the inflorescence of Lysichiton americanus but to compare it with the smell of a skunk is just plain unfair. Indeed, compared to other members of the aroid family like Dracunculus vulgaris, Typhonium venosum or most of the genus Amorphophallus, the odour is somewhat tame. Indole, the chemical that aroids produce to make this odour last longer is produced only in the spathe of Lysichiton and not the spadix as it is in Dracunculus vulgaris and Typhonium venosum and this may be the reason why the insect-attracting aroma is not as strong. The adult beetles of Peelecomalius testaceum certainly seem to find the musky molecules irrisistible and all along the West Coast, from Northern Califirnia to Alaska, they are attracted by the smell to feed on the pollen and use the inflorescences as a playground for their amorous pursuits. The broad yellow funnel-like spathes are perfectly shaped for dispersing the odour and the insects find them a useful shelter and mating site. In return, the flowers are pollinated.
Some tribes of the indigenous First Nations used the large waxy leaves of Lysichiton americanus for wrapping food items, lining their cooking pits and drying berries on. They were also used as makeshift plates and folded to make temporary dippers and drinking cups.
Lysichiton americanus has a large deep contractile root-system that it uses to stabilise its growth in fluctuating water-levels so - once planted - it should be left undisturbed to get on with life. Other than that, its reqirements are few. Growing far into the Arctic Circle it is the most northerly of the aroid genera and is extremely hardy. Give it a deep rich mud then sit back and enjoy the show.
|Geographical Origin||USA and Canada: the Pacific Northwest from California to Alaska|
|Cultivation||Full sun or semi-shade. Thrives in a deep organically-rich mud|
|Eventual Height||1.3 m|
|Eventual Spread||60 cm - colonising through offsets and self-seeding|
|Hardiness||Fully hardy. Dormant in winter|
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