Spring announces itself like an alarm clock, waking you before dawn with the cheery notes of a robin or the buzzy plink, plink, skerrr of a Bewick’s wren. Branches bare just yesterday are suddenly festooned with tiny buds, and the air is filled with the scent of daffodils — or is it? Walk through a wet woodland or meadow in April and you might detect a rather skunky aroma instead; follow the mildly musky odor and look down around your feet for large yellow flowers that look and smell nothing like daffodils.

These springtime wetland blooms are swamp lanterns (that’s a whimsical nickname for the odd-looking flower that’s more commonly known as skunk cabbage, or Lysichiton americanus to scientists).

“The swamp lantern is one of the first native plants to bloom each spring in the Pacific Northwest, even before the well-known early bloomer of the forest floor, western trillium,” explained Tom Murdoch, director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation.

Your family can spot them all month long during the Swamp Lantern Festival (through April 30) at the Northwest Stream Center south of Everett, hosted by the Adopt A Stream Foundation. The half-mile nature path winds through a grove of cedars, along a salmon stream and around duck ponds. An elevated boardwalk over swampy areas keeps your feet dry.

“There are probably 1,000 swamp lantern blooms below the boardwalk,” said Murdoch. “It’s quite beautiful to see that many blooms in one location.”

The Northwest Stream Center boardwalk passes through an area with mature cedar trees called the “Cedar Cathedral.” The boardwalk is part of a half-mile nature path during which visitors can see many swamp lantern blooms. (Kelly Hill)
The Northwest Stream Center boardwalk passes through an area with mature cedar trees called the “Cedar Cathedral.” The boardwalk is part of a half-mile nature path during which visitors can see many swamp lantern blooms. (Kelly Hill)
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They practically glow on the floor of swampy patches of forest and meadow, cracking open a neon-yellow bract (a leaflike protective structure) to reveal a knobby flower spike called a spadix. Bears love to snack on the stuff, and the plant’s leaves were used by Indigenous people to line baskets when foraging for berries, or folded up to make a packet for salmon to steam in.

You’ll see more than swamp lanterns on your visit here. Throughout April, the Northwest Stream Center and Washington Native Plant Society host a concurrent celebration of the season at this nature preserve: Native Plant Appreciation Month. Showy native blooms like salmonberry and red-flowering currant charm hummingbirds, native bees and butterflies in the new pollinator meadow, which opened in 2019. Children can learn about how riparian plants (which grow beside water) and wetlands protect salmon-bearing streams by keeping the water clean and cool. The planting map helps identify which native plants have been planted in the pollinator garden. 

The half-mile walk is ADA and stroller accessible, and takes about 30 minutes (or a little longer for very small children). No dogs are allowed. Face coverings and social distancing from other groups are required.

The Northwest Stream Center is a half mile east of Interstate 5 (exit 186) at McCollum Park, 600 128th St. S.E. in Everett. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, through April 30. Admission (collected on arrival) is $5 for students, $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for EBT cardholders. Children under 5 are free, as are members of the Adopt A Stream Foundation. Due to COVID-19, reservations are required for groups up to five people — reserve online at streamkeeper.org or call 425-316-8592.

More places to see swamp lanterns in bloom

Use your noses to discover a patch of odoriferous skunk cabbage at a park near you.

Schmitz Preserve Park (5551 S.W. Admiral Way in Seattle) is 53 acres of forest, much of it old-growth. Lowland areas in the park contain swamp lantern gardens. It’s a good spot to see trillium, too.

Beaver Lake Preserve (1301-1627 W. Beaver Lake Drive S.E. in Sammamish) offers a hike through lush forest and wetlands that boast gardens of swamp lanterns in several spots.

Twin Falls (I-90 to exit 34 in North Bend) is a kid-friendly hike where swamp lanterns bloom in low, moist areas alongside cedar, spruce and salmonberry.