Perennial Notes Excerpts
This article was first published in Perennial Notes in Winter 1995.
Some perennials surprise us on occasion, but Italian arum (Arum italicum 'Pictum') astonishes us all season long. Each fall, when the rest of the garden's show is drawing to a close, this arum's first foliage rises from thickened, tuberous roots and stands twelve-to-fifteen inches above the leaf litter. The plant's eight-inch-long, arrow-shaped leaves are dark green with creamy veins. This coloration produces an effect that is often described as "marbleized". When this is combined with an undulating leaf margin, the look is decidedly tropical and is an anachronism in the autumn garden.
Amazingly, this foliage persists throughout our Atlanta winters. Frost will cause the stalks to topple (I always think they appear to have fainted), but they will straighten up as the day warms. Arum shrugs off a snowfall just as effortlessly, thus providing interest clear through until spring. I sometimes snip leaves from the arum to combine with fragrant, winter-flowering shrubs. One that I use is the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), whose own foliage is unimpressive in an arrangement.
In spring arum's exotic bloom is produced. This begins with a pale, creamy-green spathe that is about eight-inches long. This spathe doesn't expand so much as it appears to inflate over the course of a few days. The resulting bloom is a drumstick-like cluster of fleshy green berries that rapidly turn scarlet. This fruit is reported to be poisonous. At the same time the leaves of the plant begin to deteriorate and by the end of June, while the rest of the garden is peaking, Italian arum disappears to await its resurrection at the following fall.
Despite its Mediterranean and North African origins and its prominence in some of the best English gardens, Italian arum thrives in the southern United States. It asks only shade, humous-rich soil, and moisture during its season of active growth. Consequently, it doesn't object to Atlanta's droughty summers and soggy winters. Furthermore, Italian arum has no reported disease or pest problems.
Some experts recommend dividing arums in the fall as the new foliage appears. Others suggest that this should be done during dormancy, if you can remember where they are planted. It is said that the seed can take a year to germinate. As a result I can't tell if my enlarging clump of plants is the result of seed-grown volunteers or offsets from the original tubers. Next year I intend to relocate some of the ripening berries to a different part of my garden to learn if self-seeding can occur this far from the arum's native range. (Ed. note: can seed in quite far from the mother plant.)
Tubers of Arum italicum 'Pictum' can be obtained in the fall from catalogs.
McClure & Zimmerman