Wildlife Column: Aptly-named ‘Skunk-Cabbage’

Hailing from Western North America, the Skunk-Cabbage was introduced to British gardens as an ornamental bog plant or marsh plant.

Thursday, 13th May 2021, 12:00 am
Skunk cabbage taken by Ian Rotherham.

The very striking and large yellow flowers supposedly produce a strongly pungent smell that apparently resembles the defensive odour emitted by a skunk and hence the common name of the plant. I must say, I have grown the plant for many years and never managed to get a smell!Introduced here as a garden flower in 1901, American Skunk-Cabbage was recorded wild for the first time in Surrey in 1947. It has since spread across Britain and is now considered an invasive ‘weed’ and a problem. Indeed, once it is established then the plant can spread very quickly and will move downstream carried by currents in streams and rivers. However, widely available from garden centres and nurseries, the plant is frequently grown in bog gardens and other ornamental wetlands. Many plants which escape to the wild does so when garden material is dumped as either ‘green waste’ or else because gardeners don’t like to kill plants and as colonies quickly outgrow their garden space they ‘set them free’. This is often how many troublesome invasive species get into the wild – we put them there! Once out of the box it is unlikely that they will ever go away completely even if we try to eradicate them. Most invasive non-native species eventually settle down as part of our long-term hybrid ecology of natives and non-natives. This is a process we call ‘eco-fusion’ and which has been going on for thousands of years but which is now accelerating.

The strong smell is connected to attracting insects to pollinate the plant; a little like the related ‘Wild Arum’ or ‘Lords and Ladies’. It may also be that the insects become trapped in the flowers and break down so the nutrients from their bodies are absorbed by the plants. Little is known about the detailed life of these species.

Contact Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife & environmental issues, on [email protected]; or follow his blog https://ianswalkonthewildside.wordpress.com and Twitter @IanThewildside.