Alien invasion … of the cabbage kind

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People living in and around Oban are being urged to watch out for an alien invasion … of American skunk cabbage.

The highly invasive plant, which gives off the smell of rotting flesh,  has lantern-shaped bright yellow flowers with waxy leaves that grow to be giant-sized.

It has often been planted by garden ponds and burns but has a nasty habit of escaping into the wild.

Now that spring has sprung, the plant has started putting in an appearance around Oban and has been spotted on Seil.

Last year the Royal Horticultural Society recommended it should not be grown in gardens, as two years earlier the European Union put it on a list of invasive alien species of concern. The yellow variety has now been banned from sale in garden centres and is a management priority in Scotland.

Maurice Wilkins, who used to be head gardener at Arduaine Gardens, has experience of American skunk cabbage.

‘It certainly is an invasive alien. We had a lot of it along the pond edges at Arduaine and I remember quite early on  finding it growing on the beach outside the garden.

‘For the next 20-odd years we cut the dead flower stems off before the seed ripened, not a huge job despite the fact there were hundreds of them, but at least we knew that it wouldn’t spread any further.

‘If anyone sees it growing outside a garden it would be sensible to report it, but in the short term cutting off the seed heads would stop the problem getting worse. It can be carefully sprayed out, but the foliage is extremely glossy which makes it hard for the chemical to stick.’

There is an East Asian species that has a gleaming white flower and is even more handsome than its American cousin, though it too is now classed as invasive in some countries.

‘There’s no harm, in my opinion, in growing either species or the lovely hybrid between them in gardens, but probably best not to grow them, as at Arduaine, beside a stream where water flows from your garden out into the wide world. An enclosed pondside planting would be better.

‘It would be interesting to hear where it’s growing out in the wild in the Oban area,’ added Mr Wilkins.

People can report sightings of it growing wild to Scottish Natural Heritage.

Although some people think of it as a weed, it has a history of being used by  indigenous people as medicine for burns and injuries and for food in times of famine when almost all parts were eaten.

The leaves have a bit of a spicy or peppery taste and come with a warning of of prickling the tongue and throat, irritating intestines and even causing death if eaten in large quantities. On a more positive note, the leaves are said to help sores and swelling.

Other alien species in Argyll and Bute include rhododendron ponticum, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.

Go to nature-scot to find out how to identify and report non-native species.