“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” – the Western Skunk Cabbage

Whirlowbrook Hall is an Edwardian gem; built circa 1906 for a rich Sheffield industrialist, Sir Walter Benton-Jones who owned coalmines in Yorkshire as well as having financial interests in steel and banking. The Hall is about five miles out of the city center, and lies just off the Sheffield to Hathersage road, on the border with Derbyshire and the Peak District National Park. It is now used as a venue for weddings, parties and conferences, although there is a café on the premises to which the visiting public has access. There is no charge for admission to the grounds and gardens surrounding Whirlowbrook Hall, which extend to 39 acres, and local people come to enjoy the many flowering plants, shrubs and the water features.

Strolling around the edge of one of the ponds on the property, I was very surprised to come across a patch of Lysichiton americanus, the Yellow Skunk Cabbage (sometimes known as the Swamp Lantern or Western Skunk Cabbage), whose rhizomes had spread all the way up to the water’s edge. This is usually found in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska, through British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon to parts of California. This is not a plant which has a wide distribution in Britain, although sometimes it is grown, as at Whirlowbrook Hall, as a novelty, and there is a wild population, doubtless spread from cultivars.

The name says it all…..the inflorescence gives off a strong odour, with a hint of putrification, and this is what attracts its pollinating insects, who think they are headed for a piece of carrion! The flower spike (or infloresence) is called a spadix, and arises from a yellowish sheath, or spathe, which a specialized leaf-like structure (sometimes called a bract).

Oh, yes, and the Shakespearean quotation? “Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds” is the last line of Sonnet 94 – “They that have power to hurt and will do none” (from the 1609 Quarto version). It is singularly appropriate, as the Yellow Skunk Cabbage is a member of the family Araceae, which contains many lilies!

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