There are some plants that are just plain strange! Even the family(genera) they are associated can be weird. Many of these peculiar plants have unusual flowers or growing habits because they might live in unusual situations or bloom out of season when there are few bees to spread the pollen. One family with strange flowers is the members of the Araceae family. The namesake of this family is the species Arum and the most common type seen in gardens is Arum Italicum (Cuckoo Pint).
The Cuckoo Pint is one of the best known members of the Araceae family which all have several characteristics in common. All members of the family have spathe/spadix flowers which make them stand out from other plants. The spathe is a specialized leaf which protects the spike(spadix) of tiny flowers. The spathe is generally much larger than the complete spadix and is often showy and can be colorful. In the case of Arum italicum the tiny flowers’ are usually on very short stems and the spathe is a greenish color. The flowers structures are usually hidden underneath the much larger leaves. Another thing common to Aracae members is they all have calcium oxalate found in all parts of the plants. Calcium oxalate is a chemical compound that is a well-known irritant and anything which has it must be handled with care.
Arum Italicum is a fairly widespread plant and grows wild in southern England most of southern Europe, Northern Africa and into Asia Minor. It is an ancient plant and representations are seen painted on the walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak in the ancient capital of Thebes in Egypt, the plants are not native to that area. During the 16th century the roots of Arums where boiled and powdered to produce a white starch which was used to stiffen collars and ruffles of the elaborate clothing of the times. Later the same powder was added to cosmetics called Cyprus powder which was used for the skin in Paris. The thick gummy sap of the plants was at the time was collected and refined for use as a substitute for soap for laundry. It’s hard to believe we used this plant for these things as processing it would have been a long slow process and in some cases taking many weeks.
Arum italicum has a life cycle which backwards compared to most plants we are familiar with. Here the leaves are produced every autumn and winter over into the spring, they area undamaged by frosts. In spring Cuckoo Pint flowers are produced and the foliage later withers leaving the elongating floral stems with the seed developing on it. As the seed is almost is ripe new leaves unfurl in late autumn and a new cycle begins again. The seed ripens and is sown in the winter as it has a short viability and does not tolerate drying out at all therefore the time of ripening guarantees the best chance of germination.
Arum italicun is an attractive plant for the garden and can be used in number of ways. It is very tolerant of shade and even deep shade and can be planted in areas where many other plants will struggle. It is quite a show at this dark time of the year and provides late autumn and winter interest. The bright color of the seeds are noticeable deep in a border or it can be used in a container for a winter show. Cuckoo Pints can be placed as accents or specimens and work as a groundcover if they are in a spot where they can naturally produce seedlings.
Growing the Cuckoo Pint is easy, you need a site with rich slightly acidic moisture retentive soil and full sun to shade. If you like more leaves plant them in more shade and for more seedheads a bit more light. Arum italicum die down during the summer heat and you might need to mark the site so you do not over plant on them. You should consider wearing gloves when handling any part of these plants do to the calcium oxalate found in the plant might irritate your skin. Wash your hands after touching any part of the plant. If you are worried about pets and children eating any part of this plant you might choose to put it deep in a border where they will be less noticeable (except to you). One good thing about this plant is that slugs and wild life generally does not touch it. Propagation is by seed or division of clumps during May and june when the plant becomes more dormant.
Cuckoo Pints are hardy to -25 c.(-13 f.) or zone 5 through 9. An average plant grows about 30cm(1ft.) tall and wide. Spacing is 45cm (16 in.) apart of you want more of a mass planting. Breeders have become interested in this plant and there are now have selected leaf types which are more marbled and showy, these should become more common in time. Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ for a long time was considered to be separate form has now been demoted to plain Arum italicum.
Looking for the elusive Cuckoo Pint:
Some species of Arums to compare: http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org/pbswiki/index.php/Arum
Growing Arum is easy, check here: http://www.perennials.com/seeplant.html?item=1.077.120
Calcium oxalate and what it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_oxalate
The Araceae family: http://zipcodezoo.com/Key/Plantae/Araceae_Family.asp
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