Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to share a plant that thrives in our climate, grows beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that won’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share one of my favorites….
It is easy to fall in love with beautiful Italian Arum, known by some as Lords and Ladies. Its leaves retain their vibrant green throughout the winter, as though unaffected by the ice and freezing cold. Beautiful geometric patterns traced on the leaves in softest cream remain elegant from autumn through early summer.
Arum leaves appear in late September or early October. They emerge as I’m digging Caladiums and watching many summer perennials fade for the season. Arum thrives in cool, damp weather in full to partial shade, sending up fresh leaves on 10”-12” stalks in expanding patches growing a bit wider and denser with each passing year. They are a useful “shoes and socks” ground cover in our woodland garden.
Native to Southern Europe and North Africa, Arum italicum originated in a warmer climate. It is hardy in Zones 5-9, and it has a superpower: Arum is thermogenic, capable of producing heat from its leaves and from its unusual flower. The mitochondria in each cell produce excess heat, which gives the plant some protection from the cold. After days under the snow, with temperatures falling below freezing at night, it still looks fresh and crisp as the snow melts around it.
A member of the Araceae family, Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’ has calcium oxalate crystals in its leaves. These crystals are very irritating to skin and soft tissue… like the tender mouths of hungry deer. All parts of the Arum are poisonous, including the seeds and the rhizome from which it grows. This is another reason why I love these beautiful foliage plants: deer, squirrels, voles and rabbits won’t touch them.
While I am thrilled to see these beautiful plants spread through our garden by seed and division, their prolific growth and nearly indestructible nature make them problematic in other regions of the United States. Areas like the Pacific Northwest consider them invasive and ask home gardeners not to plant them. They have also begun to naturalize in parts of Northern Virginia. Thus far, they aren’t considered a problem in Tidewater, Central or Western Virginia.
Arum remain my cold-weather guilty pleasure plant. I order new rhizomes each year as I order spring blooming bults from Brent and Becky Heath, and plant many of them in containers for winter interest. This plant blends beautifully with spring bulbs and winter blooming perennials like Violas.
Plant them beneath shrubs and amongst spring bulbs to mark where you have planted the bulbs. Interplant them with Hosta to keep beautiful foliage in your Hosta beds year-round. Pair them with either hardy or deciduous ferns for delicious springtime associations. Replace Caladiums with Italian Arum to maintain plants of similar size, texture and form through the winter months. Caladiums also belong to the Araceae family, and you’ll notice the leaves and flowers are very similar to one another.
Italian Arum bloom in late April or early May with a spadix and spathe style flower. It isn’t showy. You’ll lose nothing to cut the flowers as they appear, just as you would with Caladiums or Colocasia. If you let the flower develop, drupes begin to form as the cream-colored spathe melts away. Those drupes turn bright orangey red by mid-summer weeks after the leaves have disappeared. If you want to limit this plant’s spread, cut the stem away before the seeds ripen.
I sometimes wonder why this sturdy, easy to grow plant hasn’t grown more popular. I’ve never seen them in pots at local garden centers. Sandy’s Plants sells them in leaf, but otherwise the only way to acquire them is to order rhizomes from online nurseries.
Exotic as they may be, Arum still fill a functional niche in a North American woodland garden. They hold and protect the ground against erosion when little else grows. They sequester carbon. They produce both nectar and pollen for pollinators each spring. Birds eat their seeds in mid-summer, and their beautiful leaves make this gardener very happy all winter long.