Dear Readers, this wasn’t a plant that I was expecting to see when I visited Golders Hill Park on Saturday. It comes from the Pacific North West, and is a member of the Arum family, much like our native Cuckoo-pint. However, Western Skunk Cabbage has much bigger, lemon-yellow flowers, and its foetid scent attracts the flies and beetles that pollinate it. Unlike cuckoo-pint, it doesn’t generate its own heat, so this doesn’t add to its attractions, but on the other hand the ‘flower’ can be up to 35 cm long, so it’s an impressive beast in its own right. It loves swampy ground, and I seem to remember seeing some on a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario when I was there last. It is, however, horribly invasive. It arrived in the UK in 1901 and has since naturalised in swampy areas all over the country, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s own Wisley Gardens. Since 2018 the RHS has recommended that it not be planted in UK gardens, although one variety was given its Order of Merit in 2014. but you can still buy it in garden centres, even though the charity Plantlife recommends that it be listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as a non-native invasive species . I’m normally quite relaxed about alien species in urban areas, but as this one is on a watercourse that is linked to the fragile bog habitat a quarter of a mile away, I am going to report it to the City of London council who manage the Heath.
One reason that Western Skunk Cabbage can be such a problem is that it is extremely tolerant of shade: while very few native British plants survive under the thick canopy of summer in forests, this plant positively thrives. Its leaves are enormous, up to 150 cm long and 70 cm wide when the plant is full-grown It can spread for hundreds of metres along a muddy river bank and shade out everything, including the spring ephemerals who need a few months of early sun, before the leaves form on the trees. According to my Alien Plants book by Stace and Crawley, alder swamps are particularly vulnerable because they can be overrun not only with skunk cabbage but also with pendulous sedge and Himalayan balsam. Skunk cabbage propagates by rhizomes but also by seeds which travel along watercourses and get caught in the fur of dogs and wild animals.
Like so many plants, however, Western Skunk Cabbage is not a problem in its North American home. The roots are eaten by bears, apparently as a laxative or cathartic after hibernation (all that laying around is probably not good for the digestion). Native peoples did use the leaves medicinally, but as they contain oxalate crystals these were only used, once cooked, as a famine food. In normal times the leaves were largely used to wrap food. Indeed, the Skunk Cabbage is considered to be a tourist attraction in some regions, such as Mount Revelstoke National Park close to Banff, Canada, where there is a Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail.
Incidentally, according to the Iroquois applying a poultice of skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite would not only cure the wound, but would make the dog’s teeth fall out.
And finally, a poem, by Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets. What critics often miss is her close observation of the natural world, something that puts me in mind of a latter day John Clare. She often pulls focus from the close-up to the universal, and so she does in this poem. The last line is a stunner.
by Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunched leaves up
through the chilly mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below,
stubborn and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again——a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.