About a week ago, we took a drive east into the hills, and along the way, I was delighted to find these blooming skunk cabbages growing alongside the road. I’ve seen skunk cabbages before, but this was the first time I was able to see the flowers up close. We stopped briefly on the side of the road so I could take a few photos:
Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, western skunk cabbage) is easily recognizable with its large green leaves (which can grow up to three feet long) and bold yellow spathes. The spathe is that large yellow “petal”; it’s not a flower at all, but actually a bract (a modified leaf). The flowers are the nodules on the stalk (spadix) that rises up in the middle of the spathe. The plants that we saw were in all stages of development, from just budding out to full bloom to fading away and turning brown.
Skunk cabbage grows in wet, swampy areas. In my forest ecology class in university, we were taught that it is an indicator of slow-moving or stagnant water close to the ground surface. At the site where we stopped, the brilliant plants stretched off as far as we could see into the trees. There was also a lot of standing water. Hardly any other vegetation was growing yet so the plants were very noticeable – and I can see now why this species is sometimes called “swamp lantern.”
I am always amazed by how ecosystems here can change in a relatively short distance. Where I live, the landscape is dominated by dry Douglas-fir forests that, as you head south, begin to open up to ponderosa pine savannas and sagebrush grasslands. But, if you head east into the hills instead, you don’t have far to go before you’re in a totally different environment of wetter dense forests of western redcedar and western hemlock, and in the understory, species like this skunk cabbage as well as ferns and thick mosses. It’s a totally different environment from where I live, and it’s only an hour’s drive away.* I feel thankful to live in a region of the world that has such varied ecosystems. It means that there is always something new to discover, even relatively close to home.