Category Archives: garden visits

exploring other gardens

Swamp Lantern, Lysichiton americanus

The first glimpse was a flash of yellow along the trail’s edge. Mid-March can be so grey — but this was bright & happy. 🙂

Lysichiton americanus, Western Skunk Cabbage, swamp lantern, yellow skunk cabbage, American skunk cabbage, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Anything blooming at this time of year makes me smile. Western Skunk Cabbage is no exception. With a name like that, perhaps you’ll think yourself fortunate to see it in a photo rather than in person… but I’ve never noticed a foul odour around this plant. Some say the smell comes when leaves are bruised. Others contend it’s the flowers trying to attract pollinating flies & beetles.

Lysichiton americanus, Western Skunk Cabbage, swamp lantern, yellow skunk cabbage, American skunk cabbage, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Lysichiton americanus is also called the Swamp Lantern. To my mind, this name is more suited. The flower spike is like the candle flame & it’s cupped by a protective spathe that glows & reflects the light– just like a lantern.
A more fitting name, right?
Even still, I often revert to the first name I learned & struggle to remember this one. Perhaps I just need to concentrate more.

In early spring, the flowers emerge in wet areas all along the Pacific Northwest. This spring is no exception. The low laying wetlands bordering Esquimalt Lagoon are prime habitat for this west coast native.

Lysichiton americanus, Western Skunk Cabbage, swamp lantern, yellow skunk cabbage, American skunk cabbage, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

I’ve seen lots of Swamp Lantern before, but just around the corner the patch swells into the largest. The southern trails at Royal Roads University are a prime pick-me up for my March blues.

The leaves follow the bloom, unfurling in a rosette around the flower. At first they’re small, but they grow quickly in the rich, moist soil.

Lysichiton americanus, Western Skunk Cabbage, swamp lantern, yellow skunk cabbage, American skunk cabbage, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

By May, the plants are large & lush. Here’s a patch just off McKenzie Beach near Tofino.

Through the summer they grow even bigger. At peak, a single leaf can be 2 feet wide & twice as long!
Dramatic, eh?

It’s no wonder folks in the UK were impressed when it was introduced as an ornamental in the early 1900’s. It became very popular. It received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Lysichiton americanus, Western Skunk Cabbage, swamp lantern, yellow skunk cabbage, American skunk cabbage, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

The conditions in England are so similar to Vancouver Island it thrived. Within 50 years Lysichiton americanus escaped the British garden & was gradually naturalizing along streams & wetlands.
That’s a little too much drama.
Now, the RHS advises against its cultivation.

I’m glad to see Swamp Lantern here, where it grows naturally. It warms my heart. I’m relieved it hasn’t been threatened by more competitive introduced species like many of our wildflowers have been. Its a reminder of how delicate an ecosystem can be.

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Lorraine says:
Hi SV,
I hope you are well and still landscaping.
I remember one of the naturalist talking about bears eating them. So had to look it up.
http://www.mossomcreek.org/swamp-lanterns-skunk-cabbage/
Stay safe,
LS
https://www.yyjproductions.ca/

Winter Iris

In the first week of February, I cycled past this lovely front yard. Basking in the winter sunshine are some very early flowers. I know about snowdrops blooming in January & snow crocus flowering by Valentine’s Day… but iris? These aren’t the dwarf iris reticulata we have in our garden. These are different.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

These are Iris unguicularis… aka Algerian iris or winter iris. This evergreen is native to dry Mediterranean regions. We have a very similar climate in the Pacific Northwest, so it can grow here, too. It might be set back by the occasional snowstorm, but it pulls through.

Blossoms start opening as early as November & continue until spring. An unusual feature is that the flowers nestle, protected, near the base of the leaves. Look closely: in this yard, the gardener trims the leaves to the same height the flowers bloom at. Better to see the blooms.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Back in January (2016), at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, I saw Iris unguicularis with full leaf. The flowers bloom inside the clump, almost hidden. To my mind, the clump looks a little messy.

It’s a tough call – trim back the leaves or not? Letting them grow natural is not as showy but probably better for overwintering insects. I reckon I can put up with messy if it means the beneficials are snug & warm, and I’m still seeing flowers in January.

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Here’s the same clump 5 weeks later. The winter aconites are almost done. The Hellebores are blooming like mad. The narcissi are opening. And the winter iris is still blooming. 🙂

That’s enough to prove to me Algerian iris is a keeper. But there are even more reasons why I’m a fan:

iris unguicularis, winter blooming allgerian iris, winter iris, Iris stylosa, Joniris stylosa, Neubeckia stylosa, Siphonostylis unguicularis, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins
  • The flowers are fragrant.
  • It’s deer & rabbit resistant (probably because it’s poisonous).
  • It’s happy in part shade under deciduous trees – or the sunny base of evergreens.
  • It survives our summer drought.

Wouldn’t it make sense that every garden in Victoria would have some Algerian iris? I suppose most nurseries don’t carry it because most shoppers don’t show up in winter to purchase plants. By the time we show up in April & May, this iris looks inconspicuous amongst the jewels of spring.
My bad.
I want to find some anyway. It’s my new mission.

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Other January gems in the Pacific Northwest:

Winter’s Fragrant Sweetbox (Sarcococca)

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Climbing the stairs to a friend’s front door & ringing the bell, I wait. DP takes time answering. & I’m happy with that. There’s a sweet smell in the air. It is just delightful.

There aren’t any blooms to be seen. Most of DP’s garden has died to the ground for the winter. All, except an unassuming evergreen shrub & a couple of sword ferns.

It turns out this plain shrub is strategically planted beside the porch. There’s a clue in its name: sweetbox. The scent is lovely…
and once established, the shrub thrives in the dry shade of the house foundations. It’s happy here & it makes visitors happy, too.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Sarcococca
(easier read than said)
… has tiny winter blossoms that hide, protected, under arching branches. The flowers that dangle below the leaves are pretty but far less astonishing than their perfume. The fragrance lingers in the mild winter air.

This clever plant has both male & female flowers. Any wayward insect seeking shelter under the canopy has lucked out. There’s a feast included! No need to wander further to feed. They party in place & the flowers get pollinated. Later on, birds enjoy the cover and feast on the berries. Sweet box is not only clever– it’s also considerate of others.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

Usually, fragrant plants are left alone by deer. Sarcococca is an unusual case. This specimen flourishes because deer steer clear of high traffic areas. In a quiet woodland setting, deer take time to enjoy a regular browse. The Sarcococca in my yard was nibbled until I caged it for protection.

sweetbox blooming in January, Scented Sarcococca, sweetbox, sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana, Sarcococca humilis, Christmas box, winter vanilla plant, January bloom, garden Victoria BC Pacific Northwest
photo by SVSeekins

CH, from garden club, says she’s planted a sweetbox at each entrance to her home. She also grows a small variety in a pot in her shaded courtyard. When it begins to bloom in January, she brings the pot into the house to enjoy the heavenly perfume.
Smart gardener!

It’s not much to look at, but I understand why Sarcococca is honoured with the valuable garden real estate beside the front door. Right now, in the dreariest time of year, such a fragrant surprise is a gift.

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Other January gems in the Pacific Northwest: