Native to North America, western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, Araceae) can be found from Alaska to northern California and as far east as Montana. This species loves water and shade and appropriately inhabits swamps, marshes, stream banks, wet forests, and other moisture-rich areas throughout its range. This plant is very conspicuous thanks to its large yellow spathe and long, prominent spadix. These structures emerge from February to April, and are only later followed by broad waxy leaves.
The brightly-colored spathe isn’t a flower, but a specialized type of leaf known as a bract. Like the petals of a flower, it can serve to attract pollinating insects to the flowers located within. The long, narrow spadix inside the spathe holds the actual flowers in a cluster, and each flower is rather small. In addition to the bold appearance, skunk cabbage also exudes an unpleasant odor that happens to attract flies and beetles. While the insects get a bit of food from the plant, they in turn unwittingly pollinate the flowers in the process.
Western skunk cabbage sounds comparable to eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, Araceae), and while the two share some similarities they also have some differences. They’re in the same family, occupy similar environments, superficially resemble each other, and both stink. At the same time they are in entirely different genera, have very different coloration, and occupy widely separated geographic areas. As a result, a plant simply called “skunk cabbage” can be one of two distinct species depending on where you are.