Sandy’s Garden ... Skunk Cabbage

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Aaah, Christmas dinner … roast turkey with all the trimmings, roast potatoes, gravy and Brussels sprouts!

What could be more attractive and appetising? Surely very little … unless it be roast turkey with all the trimmings, roast potatoes and gravy without the Brussels sprouts! Many a younger person will say that Brussels sprouts are definitely not their favourite vegetable, although it seems that, as one grows older, Brussels sprouts become less unpopular and become more readily acceptable. I’m not certain what it is that puts people off sprouts, but I suspect that it is the smell; and it is most assuredly the smell that is responsible for another vegetable’s common name, for Lysichiton americanus gets its common name from the fact that it gives off an odour decidedly reminiscent of the stink emitted by a skunk trying to persuade a perceived enemy to leave it alone and to go elsewhere in search of a meal!

But is Lysichiton americanus a vegetable at all? Well, given that the definition of ‘a vegetable’ is a very loose one which really seems to depend on whether we eat parts of the plant … most commonly its leaves … then it might be argued that skunk cabbage is not a vegetable but is a wild flower, for few people eat the plant while some grow it for its blooms. So why do some people eat it, why do some grow it for its flowers and why is it being seen as a possible problem in the Unites Kingdom?

Lysichiton americanus is a member of the arum plant family which is native to swamps, the banks of streams and other wetland areas of the Pacific northwest of the United States. It grows from large rhizomes … thick plant stems that grow underground and have shoots and roots growing from them … these shoots being quite short and carrying leaves varying from about 30 cm to 150 cm in length … say, 12 inches to 3 feet in old money … and from 6 cm to 12 cm broad … 2½ inches to 5 inches … when mature, so these leaves can be pretty large. Numerous tightly-packed, not unattractive flowers appear in a sort of bright yellow or yellowish-green sheath on top of a 30 cm to 50 cm stalk in late winter or early spring; and it is for these flowers that Lysichiton americanus … skunk cabbage, otherwise known as western skunk cabbage in the United Stated, yellow skunk-cabbage in the United Kingdom, American skunk-cabbage in Great Britain and Ireland and swamp lantern everywhere … was first imported into this country.

A small number of people eat skunk cabbage leaves because they are a good source of protein, phosphorus, dietary fibre, vitamins A, B6 and C, and of essential trace elements: but they also contain a lot of sodium do not come highly recommended. Most skunk cabbage is grown as an ornamental plant in bog gardens and is widely available from garden centres. Its popularity among the owners of such gardens is explained by the plant’s liking for the climate in our islands. But once established, a skunk cabbage colony quickly expands to fill the space in its owner’s garden, requiring him or her to dispose of some plants. Sadly, some gardeners dump these surplus plants in the countryside where, if they are discarded in a damp habitat, they establish colonies. And now the same thing happens as happened in the gardener’s cultivated bog garden; Lysichiton americanus thrives and, with its rapid rate of growth and its large leaves, soon overwhelms local plants and becomes a very real problem.

The popularity of this plant with gardeners means that the number of cultivated colonies is likely to increase, which will result in an increase in the number of unwanted wild colonies. Perhaps it would have been a good thing had its smell put us off from the outset!