Skunk Cabbage

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 close-up

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.”

Skunk cabbage

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.

*These ecosystem changes are mostly due to the rainshadow effect of the coast mountains.  Here in the interior, the mountains shield us from much of the moisture moving in from the coast, but as you move eastwards, that effect lessens and the climate becomes wetter.  Moving to a higher elevation also means that the climate becomes cooler and wetter.
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4 Responses to Skunk Cabbage

  1. loren says:

    Skunk cabbage seems the surest indicator of Spring here in the Puget Sound Region, a much better indicator than all the non-native flowers people have imported into their gardens.

    Never seen quite as many as shown in your shot, though. Quite the capture.

    • Heather says:

      My photo actually shows only a small fraction of the skunk cabbages that were present on the site. I was amazed by how many there were. We drove alongside them for several minutes before we found this spot to pull over on the side of the road. And I agree – they’re a wonderful sign of spring!

  2. Mikke near Olympia says:

    Love the term “swamp lantern.” We call them “alien bishops” for their appearance of mitered exolife marching through the marshy places. Just love these plants, and look for them eagerly as an indicator of spring, as loren notes above! Thanks for the charming entry.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mikke! I’ve never heard the name “alien bishops” before, but I quite like that one. Your comment on this older post reminds me that I should try to get out and look for some skunk cabbages again this year, as I think I missed them last year.

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