Copyright 2015 by M. D. Vaden
The Swamp Lanterns or Skunk Cabbage can be found in most of the northern redwood Parks. Lysichiton americanus is the specific name. It practically looks tropical.
Typically, wherever they grow is indicative of all-year moisture. They are not everywhere that the biggest redwoods are found, but they often go hand-in-hand with groves of large redwoods that need a lot of water to reach that age and size. But Skunk Cabbage also grows around other areas. You can see it several places on the drive to Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon after you turn off Hy. 101 north of Orick onto Davison Rd.
The trail above the north side of Fern Canyon has some good examples too. Its not widespread like Sword Fern, but its not rare either.
The leaves get huge, upwards of 5 feet long. But early spring, the leaves start out fresh and small. By winter, the leaves wither. The flower is actually many small flowers inside a yellowish spathe. It emits a pungent odor that could be considered skunky, but the smell is sort of mellow and easy to get used to. It blossoms late winter to early spring.
Roots can be food for bears, who eat it after hibernating. The plant was used by indigenous people as medicine for burns and injuries, and for food in famine, when almost all parts were eaten. The leaves have a spicy taste. Caution should be used in attempts to prepare western skunk cabbage for consumption, as it contains calcium oxalate crystals, which result in a prickling sensation on the tongue and throat and result in intestinal irritation and death if consumed in large quantities. Although the plant was not typically part of the diet under normal conditions, its large, waxy leaves were important to food preparation and storage. They were commonly used to line berry baskets and to wrap around whole salmon and other foods when baked under a fire. It is also used to cure sores and swelling.
I have always thought of the emerging blooms as very cheery. Its one of my favorite plants.
Images: Skunk Cabbage one the way to Gold Bluff Beach in northern Humboldt, and also up in Del Norte along Howland Hill Rd. in Jedediah Smith Park