American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

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American skunk-cabbage

Top facts

  • The American skunk-cabbage is named for the pungent, skunk-like smell of its flowers, which attracts pollinators.
  • The American skunk-cabbage’s flowers are borne on a long, fleshy inflorescence which is surrounded by a bright yellow structure known as a ‘spathe’.
  • The American skunk-cabbage can be long-lived, forming dense populations that may survive for up to 80 years.
  • Although native to North America, the American skunk-cabbage has been introduced to Europe, where it is considered an invasive species.
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American skunk-cabbage fact file

American skunk-cabbage description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderAlismatales
FamilyAraceae
GenusLysichiton (1)

The American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is a tall perennial plant which is named for the distinctive skunk-like odour of its flowers (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). The flowers of this species are tiny and are borne in large numbers on a long, rounded, fleshy inflorescence which is known as the ‘spadix’ (4) (6) (7). Each plant may have one or two of these inflorescences (3) (4) (7), and each one is surrounded by a bright yellow, showy structure, or ‘spathe’, which can be up to 45 centimetres high (3) (4).

Each individual flower of the American skunk-cabbage is yellowish-green and typically has four tepals (3) (4) (8). The flowers are usually either male or female, with female flowers growing at the base of the spadix while male flowers grow higher up (3) (4). The genus name of the American skunk-cabbage, Lysichiton, comes from Greek words meaning ‘dissolve’ and ‘tunic’, and refers to the fact that the spathe withers soon after the plant has flowered (8).

The American skunk-cabbage’s leaves are large, shiny and leathery and grow in a cluster at the base of the plant. Each leaf is bright green and can measure up to 70 centimetres in length (2) (3) (4) (8). The American skunk-cabbage’s roots are white, and this species also has thick, fleshy underground stems known as rhizomes, which can be up to 30 centimetres long and 5 centimetres wide (3) (4) (7) (8).

After flowering, the American skunk-cabbage produces around 150 to 350 green berries on each spadix (4) (7). Each berry typically contains two brown seeds, which measure up to 1.1 centimetres in length (3) (4) (7) (8).

Also known as
American skunk cabbage, American skunkcabbage, western skunk cabbage, western skunk-cabbage, yellow skunk cabbage.
Synonyms
Lysichiton americanum, Lysichitum americanum.
Size
Height: up to 1.5 m (2) (3) (4)
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American skunk-cabbage biology

Although the American skunk-cabbage often has separate male and female flowers, hermaphroditic flowers can also occur (3) (4) (5) (7). The flowers appear in the spring (2) (3) (4) (5) (7) (8), before the plant’s leaves appear (3) (4), and are pollinated by beetles and flies which are attracted by the flowers’ distinctive, pungent odour (3) (4) (7) (8).

The American skunk-cabbage’s green berries are produced in the summer months. Once the berries are ripe, the spadix withers and most of the seeds fall to the ground around the parent plant. However, if the plant is growing by running water the seeds may be dispersed downstream, and in this species’ native range they are also likely to be dispersed by birds, small mammals and bears (2) (3) (4) (5). The seeds of the American skunk-cabbage can remain viable in the soil for six to eight years or more (4) (7).

In general, the American skunk-cabbage only begins to flower and fruit at around two to three years old (7), and individual plants may not flower every year (4). This species grows slowly and can form dense patches that may survive for up to 80 years (3) (4) (7). In addition to reproducing sexually by producing seeds, the American skunk-cabbage can also regenerate from its rhizomes and stems (3) (7).

The tissues of the American skunk-cabbage contain calcium oxalate, a caustic chemical which may help to protect the plant from herbivorous animals. If eaten by humans, this chemical can make the mouth burn (6). However, the American skunk-cabbage has sometimes been used by Native Americans for food in times of famine, as well as for its medicinal properties (3) (8).

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American skunk-cabbage range

The American skunk-cabbage is native to western North America, where it occurs from southern Alaska, through British Columbia in Canada, and south to California in the United States (3) (4) (5) (8). This species has also been introduced to a number of European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (3) (4) (5).

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American skunk-cabbage habitat

The American skunk-cabbage grows in swamps, wet woodlands and along streams and pond margins (2) (3) (4) (5) (7) (8), at elevations from sea level to around 1,400 metres (2) (3) (4) (7) (8). As long as the soil is wet, this species can grow in a range of soil types, and can survive in both shade and full sun, as well as in flowing or standing water (2) (3) (4) (7). However, the American skunk-cabbage tends to prefer soils that are nutrient rich (4) (5).

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American skunk-cabbage status

The American skunk-cabbage has yet to be classified by the IUCN.

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American skunk-cabbage threats

There are not known to be any major threats to the American skunk-cabbage. Its popularity as an ornamental plant led this species to be introduced into European gardens during the last century, and it has since escaped into the wild in parts of northern and central Europe (3) (4) (5). This robust plant can form dense stands that may shade out native vegetation (2) (3) (4) (5) (7), and in some countries the types of habitat it invades are already rare and endangered, meaning that its presence could put rare plants under threat (3) (4). By affecting light conditions and plant communities, the American skunk-cabbage could also have knock-on effects on insects and other animals (3).

Dispersal of the American skunk-cabbage’s seeds by animals has not yet been reported in Europe, but this invasive species may spread when its berries get washed downstream by running water. The American skunk-cabbage produces large numbers of seeds which can remain viable in the soil for many years (4). As it can re-grow from its rhizomes, this species can also potentially be spread by fragments of rhizome transported on machinery or by other means, such as in dumped garden waste (3) (4) (7).

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American skunk-cabbage conservation

No specific conservation measures are known to be targeted at the American skunk-cabbage in its native range. Where it has been introduced in Europe, this species is on the action list of the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO), meaning that member countries are recommended to regulate it (3) (4). In the United Kingdom, the American skunk-cabbage is not currently listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales (2010), which would make it an offence to plant or allow it to grow in the wild (7).

The most effective ways to prevent the American skunk-cabbage from invading areas outside of its native range would be to restrict trade in the species, prevent intentional planting in the wild and ban the disposal of garden waste in wild areas (3) (7). However, controlling online trade in this species would be difficult (3). If the American skunk-cabbage does escape into the wild, early detection should allow effective eradication measures such as manual or mechanical removal to take place. The use of pesticides to remove this plant is not recommended as it typically grows in sensitive wetland areas (3) (4) (7).

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Find out more

Find out more about the American skunk-cabbage:

Find out more about plant conservation in North America:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Herbivorous
Having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
Hermaphroditic
Possessing both male and female sex organs.
Inflorescence
The reproductive shoot of a plant, which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
Perennial
A plant that normally lives for more than two years. After an initial period, the plant usually produces flowers once a year.
Pollinate
To transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Rhizome
An underground, horizontal plant stem that produces roots and shoots.
Tepal
Element of the outer part of a flower (the perianth), which includes the petals and sepals (floral leaves). The term is usually used when the segments of the perianth are undifferentiated or are indistinguishable as petals or sepals.
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References

  1. Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (September, 2013)
    http://www.itis.gov/
  2. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Identification Sheet - American skunk-cabbage (September, 2013)
    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/index.cfm?sectionid=47
  3. NOBANIS: Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet - Lysichiton americanus (September, 2013)
    http://www.nobanis.org/files/factsheets/Lysichiton%20americanus.pdf
  4. European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (2006) Data sheets on quarantine pests: Lysichiton americanus. EPPO Bulletin, 36(1): 7-9.
  5. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Factsheet - American skunk-cabbage (September, 2013)
    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/factsheet/factsheet.cfm?speciesId=2110
  6. Kricher, J. and Morrison, G. (1988) A Field Guide to Eastern Forests, North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  7. Sussex Wildlife Trust - American skunk cabbage fact sheet (September, 2013)
    http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/uploads/skunk%20cabbage%20fact%20sheet.pdf
  8. Flora of North America - Lysichiton americanus (September, 2013)
    http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=222000246
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American skunk-cabbage  
American skunk-cabbage

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