I love this time of year. The slow shift to spring brings botanical wonders that can be slowly savored – the native Indian plum, early-blooming ornamental cherries, true-blue Hepaticas, and fleetingly beautiful ephemerals, to name a few.
And then there’s the robust, upright, yellow skunk cabbage – a fine foil to such delicate emblems of early spring.
Around this time of the season, you can see our native Lysichiton americanum (the proper name for skunk cabbage) poking up along streams, in wet woods and meadows, and in bogs. Its flower – a bright yellow spathe cloaking a stalk of tiny white blossoms – inspired another name for the plant: swamp lantern. Indeed it lights up the wet forest floor. But it is its musky odor that prompted the more common nickname. The skunky stink, triggered when the leaves are crushed, attracts carrion-loving pollinators like flies and beetles, who are out and about before the bees and butterflies have awakened.
After the flowers appear, enormous glossy, leathery dark-green leaves steal the show. In times of scarcity, Native Americans sometimes consumed the plant’s root, steamed and roasted, but never the succulent cabbage-like leaves. Critters also tend to avoid the greens, which contain a chemical that causes burning and irritation throughout the digestive tract. But Native Americans used the waxy leaves for other purposes, such as lining berry baskets and steam pits.
Some good places for viewing skunk cabbage in the next few weeks are Dead Horse Canyon (a.k.a. Lakeridge Park), Seward Park, especially on the east side of the peninsula, and a bit farther afield in West Seattle’s Schmitz Preserve Park. It’s quite a thrill to stumble upon a drift of skunk cabbages in the woods, their yellow beacons declaring that spring is here.