How to Plant & Grow White Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis)

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White skunk cabbage spathe
The white skunk cabbage has a yellow-green spadix that is surrounded by a white spathe. Валерия Ковалева / CC BY 4.0

The white skunk cabbage is an aquatic perennial with aromatic blooms. Though it is referred to as a type of “cabbage”, it is unrelated to the edible, true cabbages of the Brassicaceae family. While its name seems to suggest an unappealing scent, it does not produce as consistently foul an aroma as some of its close cousins (L. americanus and Symplocarpus foetidus). It is a member of the Araceae or arum family, which is known for producing specialized inflorescences in the form of a spadix.

The wild stands of the white skunk cabbage are found in the wetlands of East Russia and northern Japan. Herbaceous, this species produces leathery and shiny green leaves. On mature plants, these may expand to a full length of about 3 feet (91 cm). The yellow-green spadix, which is accompanied by an eye-catching, white spathe, appears before the leaves have fully unfurled. In mid-spring, the 12-inch (30 cm) floral stalks can add delicate color and complexity to the entire surface area of shallow ponds.

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White Skunk Cabbage Fact Sheet:
Aquatic perennial
USDA 5 – 7; UK zone 6
Full sun to partial shade
Yellow-green (with white spathe)
April to May
Up to 3 feet
1 – 1.5 inches of wet soil
Slightly acidic to slightly basic pH

Facts, Benefits & Uses of White Skunk Cabbage

White skunk cabbage in water
In Great Britain and Ireland, white skunk cabbage is often used to naturalize water features. ITÔ, Hiroki / CC BY 4.0

Also known as the Japanese swamp lantern or water-banana, this arum makes for a splendid addition to the margins of both ornamental and wildlife ponds. It is often used to naturalize water features in Great Britain and Ireland because of its ease of care and its tolerance for seasonal floods. Given its fantastic qualities as an aquatic plant, it is a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

In the wild, this species favors wet woodlands and grows close to the margins of fairly calm streams. Its smell appears to be highly variable. While some stands may emit a distinct and potentially unfavorable scent, others may produce a sweet fragrance or have no smell at all. Horticulturists that opt to cultivate this arum are rarely concerned about the possibility of a musky smell. For one, the seasonal appearance of swathes of white spathes is well worth the risk of a distracting odor.

Rarely plagued by serious pests or diseases, the white skunk cabbage can be used to blur the edges of both earthen and lined water features. Its emergent features should help both wild animals and young fish stay hidden from potential predators. Moreover, the roughly-textured spadix may attract a number of beneficial insects and springtime pollinators to water gardens.

White Skunk Cabbage Growth, Hardiness & Climate

White skunk cabbage plant
White skunk cabbage should be planted in shallow waters or along the edges of water features that frequently flood. Cecilia / CC BY 4.0

If you’re after an aquatic plant that serves both visual and functional roles, this is an ideal species to consider cultivating. It is not prone to spreading quickly on its own and can thus take some time to reach its full size. Some of the best ornamentals take a little bit of patience to grow, especially as they are unlikely to compete with their neighboring plants. This one is no exception, but it’s best to time its germination and outplanting periods to prevent any specimens from dying back. With proper care, established stands of white skunk cabbage can self-propagate to form favorably-sized colonies.

The white skunk cabbage should be situated in shallow waters or along the frequently flooded edges of water features. If its established specimens are placed about 3 feet (1 meter) apart, they can slowly spread to serve as ground cover in flooded areas. A variety of soils can be used to promote root growth, though a moisture-retentive and humus-rich substrate should be best.

Hardy down to temperatures of -15˚C (5˚F), the white skunk cabbage is able to tolerate seasonal temperature variations in hardiness zones 5 – 7. To grow to its full size, its foliage requires full sun to partial shade. Heavy shade may also be tolerated by previously acclimated specimens, though it may compromise their flowering rate and their resistance to diseases.

How to Plant White Skunk Cabbage

White skunk cabbage field
After their first winter, white skunk cabbage seedlings can be transferred to your outside water feature. Komoro no kaze, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

White skunk cabbage is usually propagated using its seeds and divisions. Once the seeds are ripe, they need to be sown into a germination setup that is protected by a cold frame or a greenhouse. A temperature of around 15˚C (59˚F) needs to be maintained for about 1 – 2 months so that the seedlings can efficiently send out new roots and develop healthy shoot tissues.

Evenly distribute the seeds onto the surface of wet soil and lightly push them into the substrate to keep them in place. To maintain the wetness of the substrate, place the pots on a tray with about 0.7 – 1.2 inches (2 – 3 cm) of water. The consistently moist conditions should prevent the seedlings from drying out. Once they are large enough to handle, transplant them into their own separate pots. The seedlings should be kept in a protected setup through the first winter. In spring, any well-established specimens can finally be introduced into your outdoor water feature.

Over time, your white skunk cabbage will spread on its own via a network of underground rhizomes. New offsets can be separated from the main plant and situated elsewhere to expand the ground coverage of this species. Rhizome divisions may be obtained and re-planted in autumn or during mild winters.

How to Care for White Skunk Cabbage

White skunk cabbage leaves
White skunk cabbage should produce larger leaves if its roots are planted in fertile, moist soil. Evgenii Iaitskii / CC BY 4.0

To stimulate the growth of white skunk cabbage, make sure its substrate is always kept generously moist or submerged under a few inches of water. Note that, in dry soil, its roots can quickly become brittle and die back. Submersion in deeper water levels is not encouraged as the leaves should be exposed to atmospheric air.

The young, herbaceous seedlings of this species should be protected from grazers and leaf-eating pests, such as slugs and snails that favor moist environments. These pests can quickly consume delicate and young plant organs, preventing the seedlings from becoming established in due time. Remove any damaged leaves as these may attract more pests and may give off an unfavorable odor.

Don’t fret if it seems as though your skunk cabbage is growing at a slow pace. This aquatic herb generally takes its sweet time to reach its maximum size regardless of whether it is situated in full sun or partial shade. As long as all shoot organs are in good condition and the roots are situated in fertile, humus-rich, and consistently moist soil, this herb should gradually produce larger leaves and inflorescence stalks.

How to Winter White Skunk Cabbage

Winter temperatures that dip down to around -15˚C (5˚F) are tolerated by established stands of white skunk cabbage. However, the foliage is not evergreen in regions that experience freezing conditions. The foliage is likely to die back in fall, once the water temperature surrounding the crown of the plant has cooled considerably.

Carefully remove any foliage that has browned or died back. Do not leave fallen leaves in the water, as these may attract pests and diseases through winter. Roots that have become established directly in the marginal substrate of the pond should not be disturbed. If they are situated in moveable pots with aquatic compost, they can be kept just below the water line. Come spring, healthy plants should begin to produce new leaves and their unique flowers.

Is White Skunk Cabbage Invasive or Toxic?

L. camtschatcensis is not considered an invasive species outside of its native range. Though it is capable of self-propagating to produce considerably sized colonies, its slow rate of growth prevents it from competing with many other aquatic perennials. In contrast, its close cousin, American skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is an invasive species and has wrought havoc as a garden escapee in many damp regions.

Though the delicate foliage of the white skunk cabbage appears as though it would add delectable texture and color to a salad, it is actually toxic due to the tiny, needle-shaped crystals in its cells. These calcium oxalate crystals can irritate the digestive organs and mouth. Moreover, the leaf sap can also act as an eye irritant. Minimize unfortunate incidents by handling this plant with gloves.

Is White Skunk Cabbage Edible? Do Animals Eat It?

Due to the presence of fine crystals in its leaves, white skunk cabbage should not be consumed in its raw form. Nonetheless, the leaves are made edible when they are cooked or dried. Either method neutralizes the calcium oxalate crystals and significantly reduces their chances of causing negative symptoms.

Herbivores will generally avoid the crystal-rich leaves of skunk cabbages. Some, such as hungry deer, snapping turtles, and bears, may attempt to consume young leaves as they emerge from a period of hibernation. Some types of waterfowl, such as pheasants, quail, and ducks, may consume the seeds of this species.

Where to Buy White Skunk Cabbage & Seeds? (UK & US)

Lysichiton camtschatcensis can usually be purchased as established plants that are rooted into 1- to 5-liter aquatic baskets. If you’re able to acquire one of these planted specimens, you can directly place it in the shallow margins of your pond. Occasionally, bare-root skunk cabbages or their seeds may also be available from ornamental and aquatic plant nurseries (UK- and US-based) and their online portals.

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Angeline L
About the author

Angeline L

I'm a passionate researcher and scuba diver with a keen interest in garden plants, marine life, and freshwater ecology. I think there’s nothing better than a day spent writing in nature. I have an academic and professional background in sustainable aquaculture, so I advocate for the responsible production of commercial fish, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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