Those of you who garden in shade need to know about Arum italicum. This unusual woodland perennial, native to Italy and the Mediterranean and hardy in zones 6 to 9, is a wonder. It has beautiful leaves, an unusual flower, fantastic fruit, and a very different life cycle.
Let’s start with the life cycle. Unlike most herbaceous plants, Arum italicum foliates in early fall. The leaves are quite visible during the winter (unless covered by snow) and spring. In May, a creamy-yellow spadix cupped by a spathe of green, quite similar to that of Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-Pulpit), appears. After flowering, the foliage disappears, leaving only the flowering stalk which is relatively inconspicuous. Do not deadhead the spadix or you will miss the show.
Gradually, the stalk develops large green berries. Then, suddenly, in late July and early August, there is an orange-red, large berried “stick”. Normally, the berries last well into the fall but over the past week (second week in August), an unknown creature has been surreptitiously eating the berries and now only a yellow stick is left. Next year, I’ll have to surround the berries with chicken wire try spraying with a repellent.
The leaves are large and triangular. While the species has green leaves, there are several cultivars with mottled, spotted or white-veined foliage. I am a great fan of the cultivars with white veins because they illuminate the shade and provide contrast to the majority of plants which have green foliage. The most well-known cultivar is ‘Pictum’ which is confused so frequently with ‘Marmoratum’ that it is now very difficult to distinguish beween the two. I also grow the cultivar ‘Chameleon’ but in a much drier location where it has never berried. Either it doesn’t likedry soil or the chipmunks or getting there before it has a chance.
Arum italicum is a tuber which can be planted in fall or spring. It grows in partial to full shade in moist soil. With sufficient moisture, the stalks can grow 20” high but in my garden, it generally grows 12” high. This is an excellent plant to use with Hosta because the Arum leaves disappear just when the Hosta and Carex leaves are finally foliating.
The shade garden rarely has bright colors but the Arum fruit is a wonderful exception. So make haste and find a source for this special perennial.