Italian arum

Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.


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