Thursday 18 October 2018

Marvel at the attractive marbled-leaf arum

Easy to grow: Italian arum has distinctive pale green markings.
Easy to grow: Italian arum has distinctive pale green markings.

Gerry Daly

Not many plants produce their leaves in autumn when most others are shutting up shop for winter, but the Italian arum does exactly that. It keeps its foliage in full growth all winter and the foliage withers away in spring when other plants are opening theirs to benefit from summer light and warmth.

But the arum has its own logic. In its original home in southern Europe and north Africa, this plant of shaded woodland and rocky places has evolved to cope with summer shade and heat by aestivating, which is the opposite of hibernating. By scaling back in summer, the arum conserves its energy until reliable rainfall occurs. Most spring bulbs do the same thing, and arum has root tubers to support its retreat.

The Italian arum is related to the native wild arum of hedgerows, woodland and gardens, generally known as 'lords-and-ladies'. This native wildflower produces leaves in late winter until summer but they are smaller than the Italian species. Both species have greenish white flowers made of a cowl-like spathe and a central spadix. These species share the flower shape with the arum lily, or Easter lily. The arum lily is a tall garden flower for summer and dies down when the frosts of autumn arrive.

The winter arums have another unusual facet in that they are pollinated by small flies when the flowers appear in late spring. The flowers exude a faint, unpleasant scent of rotting material that attracts flies. Presumably, flies are more reliable as pollinators in early spring. These plants can raise the temperature of the flowers by a couple of degrees as an encouragement to the flies. After pollination, the flower top withers and the lower parts become spikes of round greenish berries that turn red-orange in late summer and autumn.

The Italian arum is usually seen in its marbled-leaf form, Arum italicum 'Marmoratum'. The original species has green leaves, pointed with spear-head shape, much broader than the native species. The marbled form has very distinctive pale green or creamy markings. These follow the veins of the leaves and give a regular pattern of rounded green areas.

This plant is very easy to grow, as easy as the wild lords-and-ladies, which often appears of its own accord in shady cool parts of gardens, often in ground under shrubs. Even though it is a wild plant, it is not weedy. The Italian species is much more decorative and covers the ground over a longer period with much larger, more attractive leaves.

Choose a well-drained, lightly shaded spot with plenty of leaf-mould decaying into the soil. More flowers and berries are produced if there is a touch of sunlight after tree leaves have fallen. Divide the plant to make a broad swathe of foliage which will add a touch of greenery and keep weeds down.

Sunday Independent

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