Sunday 21 January 2018

Beautiful skunk cabbage belies unflattering name

SKUNK cabbage is the unflattering name given to a very beautiful flower from North America. It produces large flowers that closely resemble the calla lily or arum lily, to which it is related, and if you're a fan of flowers of this shape, you will be delighted with the skunk cabbage.

It gets its common name from a musky smell that can be detected from the flowers. This can be unpleasant if there is a big group of flowers, but it usually blows away on the wind. The scent has evolved to entice pollinating flies that are attracted to decay, rather than bees, which are attracted to sweet-smelling flowers.

The flowers have the remarkable ability of being capable of producing heat in the central part of the flower, one of the few known instances in the plant world. And it can be warmer than the surrounding air by up to 5° Celsius. This is thought to encourage pollinators and to help to disseminate the scent of the flowers. The flowers have been known to melt snow lying on them, and the plant is hardy.

The flowers of the skunk cabbage, also called yellow bog arum, are arrestingly beautiful. They appear quickly in early spring from buds below soil and stand clear of the soil to knee-height, starting in February, although they were delayed somewhat this year. Soon after the flowers appear, the large leaves push out, these can be over one metre in length and half that in width. These soon swamp out any grass or weeds growing under them. Although generally too big for small gardens, it could be used as accent plant in a small space.

Bog arum is often planted by the side of a stream and it has been known to spread by seeds downriver and has become a garden escape in some places. A lover of wet, muddy ground, it's ideal for a damp spot, or a damp area with pond over-flow. It could be grown in a big pot with restricted drainage. Its foliage would make quite a show.

There is also a lovely white-flowered version that comes from the east Siberia. The white skunk cabbage is a bit smaller and looks like an arum lily on shorter stalks. It is much more difficult to find in garden centres. It likes the same conditions as the yellow-flowered species.

Both of these plants are unaltered, exactly the same as the wild plants. As a result, they have a lovely natural appearance and vigour. They are ideal for naturalising in a garden that has a semi-wild area with damp soil, teamed with gunnera, filipendula and astilbe, the area would look well and be easy to maintain.

Sunday Independent

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