Gardening: A nod to spring with a ‘skunky’ odour in the air

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After a rather damp but warm spring with hardly any frost here at Harlow Carr, and everything coming relatively early, things seem to be finally settling down and flowering when they should.

Two plants in particular, which are stealing the show at the moment, are Fritillaria meleagris (Snake’s Head Fritillary) and Lysichiton americanus (Western Skunk Cabbage). These can both be found on Streamside and on the Woodland edge at Harlow Carr.

Fritillaria meleagris comes from the Latin fritillus, meaning dice-box. This is possibly referring to the chequered pattern on the flowers, although this derivation has been disputed. The name meleagris means ‘spotted like a guinea fowl’. The common name “snake’s head” probably refers to the somewhat snakelike appearance of the nodding flower heads on their long stems.

These exquisite Fritillarias can be found on the snaking footpath leading up into the Woodland and throughout the meadow grass going down into the arboretum. Fritillaria meleagris can be identified by the chequered patterned flower head and Fritillaria meleagris ‘Alba’ is identifiable by its pure white flower head. They both stand around about 20-40cm tall and float in the wind through the meadow grass.

Fritillaria meleagris is native to Europe but in many places it is an endangered species that is rarely found in the wild, but is commonly found in gardens such as Harlow Carr. It is regularly available from most garden centers and bulb catalogues. Fritillaria meleagris can be propagated in the autumn, this can be done once they have finished flowering by collecting the seed and keeping it until the autumn. In the autumn sow the seeds in a cold frame and expose to the winter cold until germination in the spring, and then transfer to a cold greenhouse. Fritillarias are slow to multiply and do take time, so patience is required.

The second plant that is brightening up Harlow Carr at the moment is Lysichiton americanus (Western Skunk Cabbage). It can be found close to the water’s edge along the whole stretch of Streamside. It is identified by its spadix which is contained within a large bright yellow to yellowish green spathe. This can grow between 30–40 cm tall. Once it has flowered the flowers are replaced by tall, dark-green glossy leaves that stand upright in a conical shape wrapping around the centre of the plant. Lysichton americanus is more commonly known as the Skunk Cabbage because of the malodorous, distinctive “skunky” odour that it emits. This odour permeates up and down the streamside where it grows; it can be detected even in old, dried specimens. The foul odour attracts its pollinators, scavenging flies and beetles.  Lysichiton americanus was used by Indigenous people as medicine for burns and injuries, and for food in times of famine, when almost all parts were eaten. The leaves have a somewhat spicy or peppery taste. It was also commonly used to line berry baskets and to wrap around whole salmon and other foods when baked in a fire pit.

In the woodland at Harlow Carr you can also find Lysichton camtschatcensis; this is a smaller, white-flowering variety of the Skunk Cabbage.

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