One of the North Coasts most beautiful floral harbingers of spring is the American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanum. Common along stream sides and in marshy areas, these obligate wetland denizens are one of the first spring wild flowers to bloom. Lysichiton is a genus comprised of only two species. Lysichiton americanum, American skunk cabbage, is found from northern California to Alaska. Its sister species, Lysichiton camtschatcensis, the Asian skunk cabbage, is found from central Japan, the Kurile Islands, and Kamchatka peninsula to northeast Asia. It seems likely these two species evolved when Asia and North America became separated by the Bering Strait.
Skunk Cabbages belong to the beautiful, bizarre and primarily tropical philodendron family, Araceae. Aroids, as they are commonly called, are a remarkably diverse group of about 3000 species. The hallmark of the family, the unique spathe and spadix inflorescence, makes aroids easy to recognize. The spadix is a long cylindrical spike of minute, usually unisexual flowers, while the spathe is a large, often showy bract that subtends and partly surrounds the spadix and acts as a flag to pollinators. Another peculiarity of the aroids is their whimsical sensory dialectic. Many aroids, such as Arum, Monstera, Philodendron, and Zantedeschia species can hold marvelous, almost ethereal beauty, so much so that one could fully expect them to adorn the pearly gates - heavenly house plants, if you will. On the other hand, many aroids, including the most beautiful, stink. Stink is most certainly an understatement. They stink to high heaven! Many aroids, such as skunk cabbages, attract pollinators (carrion flies, beetles, and bees) with a rank, fetid, odiferous, putrid, vile, revolting, vomitus stench. Conservatories housing these botanical wonders have been known to have exterior doors (escape exits) near their most potent aroids so that patrons overcome by the miasmal putrescence could run outside to recover or get sick. According to Deni Bown in the book Aroids, these revolting aromas include compounds of amines, amino acids, ammonia, and indole, the latter being rare in higher plants.
Another quirky character of the aroids is the ability of the inflorescence of some species to produce heat. A good example of this is the skunk cabbage that occurs on the east coast of North America, Symplocarpus foetidus. This species, also a swamp inhabitant, blooms so early in the spring that the inflorescence melts its way though snow and ice. Its inflorescence has the remarkable ability to maintain a temperature 15-35° C above the ambient air temperature for weeks. To accomplish this the inflorescence respires at the same rate as a small mammal of equal weight. One putative reason, or selective advantage, for heated flowers is that the heat helps volatilize and dissipate the pollinator-attracting effluvium. The heated microclimate of the inflorescence can also enhance pollination by creating a warm comfortable environment that keeps the pollinators active, feeding, mating, etc. To power their heat-generating inflorescenses skunk cabbages have very large starch-laden rhizomes. I have found no mention of our native skunk cabbage producing heat.
About six aroid genera occur in the wild in California, but all except the skunk cabbage are weeds or escaped ornamentals. Many herbals recommend skunk cabbage as a remedy for ailments as varied as asthma, epilepsy, hysteria, hydrophobia, lockjaw, lumbago and suspended animation. Could skunk cabbage really cure suspended animation? I can not vouch for the curative powers of this herb but I do know that most herbals are referring to the east coast skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, not the skunk cabbage of our area Lysichiton americanum. It should also be noted that skunk cabbage, like all aroids, contains calcium oxalate crystals (raphides) in their cells. These small crystals, if not destroyed first by processing, cause great irritation and mechanical injury to the mouth and throat when eaten. This is also why the house plant Dieffenbachia, has the common name Dumb cane. Chewing the leaves makes the tongue swell up and leads to speechlessness in adults and occasionally death in children and pets. These crystals are the reason why all members of the philodendron family should be considered toxic.
If you wish to learn more about skunk cabbages or the philodendron family, Deni Bowns book Aroids is a great place to start. To see and smell skunk cabbage in their full glory in the Arcata area, hike the low-lying trails in the Arcata Community Forest and at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in spring. You can also explore aroid diversity at the HSU Conservatory and the conservatory at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.