Judging by the number of plants flowering around the city Spring is well underway and so on a recent weekend we opened the hiking season on a trail near North Bend. The woods were wet and dripping but the native harbingers of Spring were out and growing in the wet mucky swampy areas near the trail were the bright yellow flowers of the native Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus).
Western skunk cabbage is one of the only local member of the lily family and grows from a long rhizome or root. It has large green leaves up to 20” long and over ten inches wide. During winter as it comes into bloom it burns so much food that it emits heat and can melt the snow as it grows. The flower is a yellow erect column surrounded by a bright yellow spathe or modified leaf. It is called Skunk cabbage due to the rancid smell it emits. The smell attracts pollinators, flies and beetles which think they have found carrion. As they move from flower to flower they carry pollen on their abdomens and pollinate the flowers.
Skunk cabbage berries are a food source for ground squirrels and bears. Fresh from hibernation the bears eat them for their laxative effects. Indigenous people used the leaves to line berry baskets or to wrap salmon for cooking. They would eat the plants in times of famine but the plant contains a form of calcium with crystals that can cause irritation and burning sensations in the tongue and mouth.
To us however they are just bright splash of color, an almost tropical blaze that helps us escape the grayness of Winter and prepare for the coming Summer.