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Skunk cabbage

Posted: Monday 7 April 2014
by James Alexander-Sinclair

I'm writing this blog post from the small, idyllic island of Colonsay off the West coast of Scotland.


I'm writing this blog post from the small, idyllic island of Colonsay off the West coast of Scotland. We've been amusing ourselves by cutting down things and making huge bonfires, which is a good way to take my mind off the fact that rain has been running down the back of my neck.

There's also a rushing burn the colour of caramel (because of the peat). Along its banks grow big, bright clumps of Lysichiton americanus. It's one of those plants that's more fascinating than beautiful. The flowers nestle within a big yellow spathe, which is one of those peculiarities of nature. Looking at the picture, you'd naturally assume that the big, obvious and brightly coloured bit was the flower. You'd be mistaken: it is, in fact, a sort of adapted leaf that wraps around the flower and serves two purposes: as protection and to attract the attention of pollinators.

It's as if the plant was waving a big flag, while jumping up and down singing sea shanties. And if that's not enough, the flowers also smell pretty unpleasantly of decay and corruption, in order to make itself completely irresistible to the flies and beetles it needs for pollination. I suppose there had to be a reason for it having the common name of skunk cabbage.

It's a plant native to Alaska and parts of Canada. It was introduced to Britain as a garden plant in 1901 and has since escaped into the wild. I presume it was brought over to Colonsay by a keen gardener sometime in the last century.
It can be eaten, but only in times of desperation, and with extreme caution as it can be toxic in quantity. It's also invasive.

Excuse me now, I must go and start up a chainsaw. There's a huge tangle of Escallonia that requires my attention.





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