In Praise of the Lovely, Luminous Swamp Lantern

There comes a time, usually in mid March, when the leaden skies, the relentless drizzle and the mud-spattered car wear me down. Then a miracle happens. Here and there in wet ditches lining the road and in swampy areas, bright yellow flowers emerge, bringing a welcome dash of colour to the monochrome bleakness. Spring is finally coming!

This bright yellow harbinger of sunny, warm days, bears the unpleasant name of “skunk cabbage”. How ridiculous! A far more appropriate title for this illustrious plant is “swamp lantern” for it does indeed light up the forest and our spirits.

The swamp lantern is a very special plant that not only has wonderful beauty, but also an astonishing life cycle, highlighted by about a month of explosive growth.

A semi-aquatic species, swamp lanterns grow wild and are found in swamps, bog edges and wet ditches. In the Gulf Islands swamp lanterns often occur in stands of red alder, which also thrive on moist ground.

Most impressive is the astonishing growth spurt of swamp lanterns in the early spring. In February, tiny green shoots are already poking out of the barren ground. During March, frenzied growth takes place and you can almost see the green leaves and yellow flowers gain size. By month end, the plant is huge, the leaves about 60 cm in length and the flowers large and luminous. By mid-April, the leaves have reached full size, many extending one-and-a-half metres in length and covering the ground like a waist-high jungle. The swamp lanterns spend the next two months quietly. Then in August they begin to wilt and decay. By November, there is little evidence these enormous plants ever existed.

Next February tiny shoots appear again, and the growth repeats itself. Remarkably, a swamp lantern plant can live up to 80 years. Imagine: growing to full size, then withering to nothing, 80 times during your lifetime!

The glorious swamp lantern has one drawback: it emits an unpleasant odour from which its name is derived. The odour, however, attracts pollinating insects.

Traditionally, First Nations steamed the roots for food and the leaves were used for packaging and serving food.

In the spring, I often sit on a log next to a clump of swamp lanterns, enjoying the splashes of bright yellow dotting the dark greenery.  I ponder the plant’s dramatic annual cycle, which parallels many other cycles: the spinning of a wheel, the rotation of the earth and the lives of all biological creatures, we humans included. We are born, we live, we die. Then the cycle repeats. To me, the lovely, luminous swamp lantern symbolizes this fundamental principle of the universe.