Unusual and easy to grow

Arum italicum deserves to be more widely grown than it is.

Photos by Judy Lowe
Photos by Judy Lowe/The Christian Science Monitor

There are any number of plants that aren't widely grown simply because -- for one reason or another -- they don't display well in garden centers in spring, when most people are looking for what they'll grow in their yards.

Arum italicum (sometimes called Italian arum or lords and ladies) is one of those plants. It's a favorite of mine for several reasons: brightly colored fall fruit, beautiful variegated leaves (evergreen even over winter in some climates), and an intriguing flower.

It's a bulb -- and you'll find it included in most bulb catalogs -- so you'd think that with those attributes, Arum italicum  would be the woodland garden equivalent of tulips for the sunny border. But not so.

Maybe that's because of a nontypical growth habit. In spring, leaves -- glossy, variegated, and arrowhead-shaped-- appear, accompanied by a flower and spathe that resembles jack-in-the-pulpit.

Then the foliage dies back over summer, leaving the stalk, which develops develops berries -- green at first and gradually achieving a bright reddish-orange.

The stalks of berries are really set off by the reappearance of the variegated leaves in fall -- the contrast really calls attention to itself.

Yes, the plant does have drawbacks. All parts are said to be poisonous. And when grown in conditions it prefers -- shade and moist soil -- it can spread vigorously. Depending on your space, you may need to pull some of it out.

Actually, though, that's usually how many gardeners (including me) have been introduced to Arum Italicum: A gardening friend dug some up and shared it with us.

But it's less likely to spread widely when planted in relatively dry soil or when grown in Zone 6 (or Zone 5, where it must be in a protected place) than in warmer areas.

In Zones 5 and 6, the leaves will die back in winter and reappear in the spring. The foliage is wonderful in flower arrangements (especially where they persist over winter, when little unusual greenery is found in the garden).

Since this is the bulb-planting time of the year in North America, I heartily recommend Arum italicum to those in Zones 6 and warmer who have a moist, shady spot that needs brightening with something a bit unusual.

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