Arum italicum

A Slow Spring

Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.

And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.

Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of  leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.

This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.

Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.

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These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.

I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).

In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.

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Euphorbia myrsinites

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Iris unguicularis

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Arum italicum

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Malodorous Moments in May

A number of plants have been given names indicating that a foul smell is part of their characteristics. The Gladwin iris, for example, has the Latin name Iris foetidissima. Others simply have a reputation for smelliness. Descriptions of Geranium macrorrhizum almost always include a reference to its foul odor. I find both of these designations exaggerated. Neither plant emits any kind of smell unless the leaves are crushed or at least disturbed, and the smells, though not exactly perfumes, aren’t that bad.

The strange thing is that some distinctly stinky plants seem to have eluded a bad reputation.

After the lilacs have faded and before the giant nameless climbing rose begins to bloom, my garden goes through a distinctly smelly period. The culprit is the Italian arum (Arum italicum). It’s a tough, useful plant, with showy marbled leaves that emerge in fall and last into spring, and weird little clusters of seeds in late summer — like tiny, bright orange-red corncobs on sticks. But in May it blooms, and the flowers, like so many of this family (think skunk cabbage), stink. The pollinators of these plants are flies, so it makes sense that they emit smells we consider objectionable. My Italian arum’s flowers smell a bit like creosote, but even more (I think) like rotten teeth breath — a pretty disgusting aroma to be wafting around the garden on a calm, warm, evening.

I acquired this plant because it was enthusiastically endorsed by the late Henry Mitchell, one of my favourite garden writers. He wrote at least two essays extolling its virtues. Beth Chatto, another esteemed gardener, recommends it in The Dry Garden, one of my gardening bibles. Neither of these authors says a word about the foul smell the arum emits during its bloom time. Descriptions of the plant at various websites fail to mention this quality as well — a disservice to those researching potential additions to their gardens.

Jurgen Dahl, a well-known German garden writer, has a chapter called “The Stinking Garden” in his book The Curious Gardener. He mentions three members of the arum family — dragon arum (Dranunculus vulgaris), voodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum) and the enormous and amazing tropical Amorphophallus titanum, which produces the world’s biggest and smelliest flower  (the flower is up to 2 meters tall). Of a plant that bloomed in 1996 in a botanical garden in Bonn, Dahl says, “It stank infernally for eight days.” (Henry Mitchell wrote about another specimen of this plant, and definitely mentioned the smell). But there is no mention of the Italian arum as a candidate for Dahl’s stinking garden. OK, I concede that its smell isn’t noticeable all the time, only on calm, warm evenings. But that’s true of a lot of fragrant plants too.

I began to think that my Italian arum was an anomaly, smellier than normal. After all, I did not buy the seeds from a reputable supplier, merely collected a few from plants near a walking/cycling trail I use frequently. I was pretty pleased with myself for identifying the plant while it was in leaf and watched for the seeds to ripen months later. Maybe this was a vulgar cousin of the Italian variety, I thought. But when I added “smelly” to my search, I got results. An article on the website of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas says that the flowers of the Italian arum smell like feces, and also mentions that the plant has been given the rather rude epithet “priest’s pintle,” because of the anatomical look of the flower. But the author of the article also calls it a “delightful little plant” (which it is when out of flower). So, confirmation at last, although I disagree with the description of the smell. But whether it’s reminiscent of rotten teeth or poop, it is undeniably foul.

Italian Arum

Italian Arum

 

Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011

Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011