My Current Crush: Arum Italicum

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Just as most garden perennials begin to die back and prepare themselves for a ‘long winter’s nap,’ Arum Italicum begins to grow.  Its fresh green leaves push up through the moist autumn soil and fallen leaves to begin their nearly nine months of gorgeousity.

Last winter’s experiment has grown into this autumn’s crush.  These beautiful plants performed so well, for so long, that I bought 50 more tubers in September to ensure masses of them for the coming season.  With such a royal horde of the beauties, I also shared about a dozen with friends, in hopes they will find them useful and beautiful in their own gardens.

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This Mediterranean and European native, hardy in zones 5-9, begins its annual growth in the fall with huge, gorgeously marked leaves.

Now please understand that these leaves will look just this pristine until they begin to die back next summer.  We saw absolutely no damage from frosty nights or icy blankets of snow.  And all of our Arum spent at least a few days under snow last winter.   Because they are thermogenic, the snow melted first around these plants, allowing them to emerge, undamaged.  New leaves kept emerging, from time to time, until mid-spring.

Like Colocasias, Alocasias, and Caladiums; Arum Italicum belongs to the family Araceae.  And like these other beautiful foliage plants, their flower is rather plain.  The tall, narrow spadix is partially enclosed in a modified cream colored  leaf called a spathe.  This elegant, but unremarkable bloom lasts for a few days in early May before the spathe fades away, leaving the spadix.

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The spadix will stand tall for the next couple of months as green berries swell and ripen along the top several inches.  They become far more interesting than was the flower, especially as they begin to turn bright crimson.  By late July or August, as the berries fully ripen, the leaves begin to wilt.  By mid-August the plant has faded away for its late summer dormancy.

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July 22, 2016 sunset 008

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Like other members of the Araceae family, Arums grow from a tuber.  These tubers grow and multiply each year, so that a single plant soon forms a small colony.  These colonies look especially nice growing under and around shrubs and small ornamental trees.  They form a bright, vibrant ground cover, and also work well in beds where spring bulbs will emerge in late winter.

After growing Arum italicum for nearly a year, I came across a warning that they can become invasive in some areas.  The National Park Service issued an invasive plant alert in 2012 because birds and animals disperse the plants seeds, and the tubers spread easily if you try to lift or remove a plant.  It is prolific….

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Brent and Becky Heath's Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

Arum italicum grow beneath a blooming Mahonia in Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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I shared this bit with a Master Gardener friend as I was giving her a few tubers last month.  Her face brightened, and she said, “That’s wonderful!”  We’re neighbors, and share the same challenges with gardening in this forest filled with hungry deer.  This has proven to be a ‘bullet proof’ perennial in our garden, untouched by deer, rabbit, or squirrels.  Many members of the Aracea family, including this one, contain toxic calcium oxalate crystals.

If you are now interested in adding a few of these beautiful and tough plants to your garden, you will have to seek them out.  This isn’t a garden center favorite.  In fact, I’ve never seen these for sale already in leaf.

You will find them in some catalogs, but the price varies wildly from company to company.

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Brent and Becky's display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camelia. The Heath's call Arum and 'shoes and socks' plant because it works so well around shrubs.

Brent and Becky’s display garden features many blooming shrubs, including this lovely Camellia. The Heath’s call Arum a ‘shoes and socks’ plant because it works so well as a ground cover around shrubs.

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We bought ours from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs last autumn, and I ordered my new bag of 50 from them in September.  They offer large, healthy tubers at an exceptionally good price.  But I’m glad I ordered early, because they have already sold out for the year.  They sold out early last year, too.

I’m mystified as to why this wonderful plant hasn’t entered the garden center trade in our area.  It is beautiful, easy to grow, tough, deer proof, and fills the winter niche in the garden.  These beauties should prove popular and profitable.

You will find its cousins, Anthurium, Dieffenbachia, and Philodendron on offer wherever ‘tropical’ houseplants are sold.  You’ll find Calla lily, another cousin, in most grocery store florists these days.  Why not the hardy perennial Arum?

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January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas in our garden

January 3, 2015 Arum with Violas and hardy Geranium foliage  in our garden

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If you’ve grown Arum italicum, I hope you’ll leave a comment with your experience of them.  If you’ve not yet tried them, they grow well in many different places.  They are perennial over much of the United States and tolerate many different types of soil.  They grow well in most anything from nearly full sun to nearly full shade, preferring partial shade at our latitude.

Because they will naturalize, you don’t need to be overly fussy with amending the soil, fertilizing, or mulching.  Doing these things will of course result in lusher, larger leaves… but they will survive on benign neglect.  I do water ours during a dry spell, especially during these last few weeks of unusually warm and dry weather.  I want to get them off to a good start as they emerge.

They grow as well in pots as in the ground.  I’ve added a few tubers to my autumn pot designs.  Thus far, my crush on our Arum has only grown stronger.  I can’t tell you a single annoying thing about them, yet.

I harvested last summer’s seeds and have them planted out, waiting to see how the seedlings emerge and grow.  But so far as I’m concerned, more is better; and I will happily spread them to every gardening friend interested in giving them a try.

Woodland Gnome 2016

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

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