Swamp lantern (skunk cabbage) resembles a golden torch.

Island Wild: Smelly ‘skunks’ signal spring’s arrival

The smell of springtime is in the air in Campbell River

Across much of Canada, this has been a winter that failed, in large part, to materialize, with many provinces now in danger of summer drought due to insufficient snowfall.

Nevertheless, we welcome the warm breezes and longer days of March. There’s no denying the fresh smell of springtime, as thawing earth nurtures the first wildflowers, along with assurances of a warm new season.

Every year, it’s a marathon to see which early bloomer wins the race; early contenders include the tissue-like magenta blossoms of salmonberry, tiny pale kinnikinnick bells and a profusion of pink fawn lilies with marbled leaves. Wildflowers wash across Mother Earth’s landscape in waves, always accompanied by the same wild woodland species with similar preference for soil condition and temperature.

Still, for pure spring sunshine, nothing beats the radiant rays of swamp lantern, otherwise known by the inglorious misnomer of yellow skunk cabbage.

Tall and mysterious, with golden hoods, they push their way up from low boggy areas alongside Vancouver Island rivers and streams.

Their humongous petal-like bracts encircle tiny green-yellow flowers on a thick, fleshy spike – majestic despite their potent, knock-me-over-with-a-feather smell!

A member of the Arum family, and relative of taro, this tropical-looking swamp plant grows quickly, with foliage forming huge fans – the largest leaf of any plant in the Pacific Northwest, easily towering over a small child.

First Nations groups roasted and dried the root, which was ground into an edible flour, although the fresh leaves were not eaten. Seeds, resembling corn, were dried and roasted into a ‘popcorn.’

In early April, the next wave of wild blooms to dance across our forest floors will include False Lily of the Valley, Pacific Bleeding Heart and Siberian Miner’s-lettuce.

Spring’s wildflowers envelope us with colour, perfume, mystery and charm, and it’s natural to marvel at how they came to be and to reaffirm our relationship with this planet.

Hot off the press: laminated fold-out pamphlet “A Field Guide to Coastal Flowers of the Pacific Northwest” by Phillipa Hudson, Harbour Publishing. Colour-coded, with 112 colour photos, pocket-sized, with average plant height and individual flower size … along with a handy metric ruler, $7.95 Cdn.