Scent of spring: skunk cabbage

Spring is coming, the first bear sightings have been reported and that harbinger of spring, the skunk cabbage, can be spotted poking its green head out of the wetlands of the valley.

The skunk cabbage is often unfairly stigmatized by its off-putting name. It is true that the plant does emulate the smell of rotting meat to attract insects, but in my view it doesn't do a great job of this as the aroma of the skunk cabbage really isn't that offensive.

article continues below

For many of us in Whistler the smell has positive connotations as "the scent of spring." According to Whistler Naturalist Bob Brett there is a more attractive (though in my opinion, equally amusing) alternative name for the skunk cabbage - the "swamp lantern." I love this name and, as Bob points out, it is really evocative of the plant's illuminating presence in wet places.

Whistlerites are so fond of the skunk cabbage that at one time there was a campaign to have it adopted as the official flower of Whistler. In 1992 a letter was written to council suggesting, "One must keep it mind that a large rodent, a marmot more specifically, has been taken on as an animal symbol for Whistler. A skunk cabbage would be consistent with this lovable creature."

The idea was rejected by the council of the day and a rather tongue-in-cheek letter was sent by Mayor Ted Nebbeling claiming, "Look at that magnificent flower the tulip. The Dutch claim it to be their national flowerWe know better; the tulip comes from ChinaSo as far as the skunk cabbage is concerned, council takes the position of mum is the wordlet's be selfish and keep the skunk cabbage for ourselves."

The letter was reproduced in full in The Answer newspaper, which ran it under the equally tongue-in-cheek heading, "Mayor Nebbeling shocks community: declares in public that he is anti-skunk cabbage." To read the whole letter and The Answer's response, check out The Whistler Answer, vol. 2, issue 3, June 1992, which is available on the museum's website.

The delightful plant is so well-loved that it even inspired its own song (apparently), the chorus of which is reproduced below. Sadly, the tune appears to have been lost in the mists of time (or perhaps not. Perhaps the author will step forward).

"Skunk Cabbage/ Don't smell so bad/ Skunk Cabbage/ Won't drive you mad/ Skunk Cabbage/ It's been much maligned/ But that old Skunk Cabbage/ She's a friend of mine."

On that note I will leave you to contemplate the joys of spring and the joys of our friends, the swamp lanterns.

Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.

© Copyright Whistler Question

The Question POLL

Do you agree with changes to the World Ski and Snowboard Festival?

or  view results

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Popular Question News