Friday, 6 December 2013

Lords and ladies

The first week of December and, rather late to the party, Arum italicum makes an appearance in the garden, just as everyone else is leaving. So late in the year is its appearance that one could almost consider it indecorously early for spring, but advent has barely begun and we should really be on the other side of Christmas before we can even think about such things.

Of course, the plant in question has not been absent from our gardens throughout the rest of the year. In spring its pale green spadix is a feature of damper, shadier spots, and the short ankle-height columns of orangey red berries are a familiar site in gardens and woodland in autumn. The berries are highly poisonous and will cause breathing difficulties from irritation to the tongue and throat. Now, from among the detritus of the year, dark green leaves emerge on the floor of the garden, marbled with bold tracings of ivory. It’s a reminder that nature never sleeps; we express our belief that throughout the winter months she is at work beneath the soil, plumping bulb and swelling root, and the faithful are rewarded with signs as miraculous as these, unfurling, richly luxuriant while all around is pale and limp and dead.

A very good friend has a ‘rude border’ in her garden, for which I periodically supply plants whose names appeal, for all the wrong reasons, to those with minds that might obtain puerile amusement from such things. Here specimens such as horny goat weed (Epimedium spp.) and Rubus cockburnianus have found a home; I am not quite certain, but surely she will have included a plant with such a variety of lewd references amongst its common names. Arum italicum is known variously ‘Lords and Ladies’, ‘Priest's Pintle’, the ‘willy lily’ and, my favourite, ‘Cuckoo Pint’ - a reference to the fandigulare of the male bird. Having never knowingly been in the vicinity of a gentleman cuckoo's undercarriage I find myself unable to comment on the accuracy of the likeness, but posterity in its wisdom has chosen to preserve this particular nickname, and so we can consider it safe to assume that at some point in history a person, or persons, who were in the position to make the comparison found it an apt one, and so made it.

Arum maculatum shares many of the same features as its showier cousin. Its large mid green spear-shaped leaves lack the attractive marbling, but are handsome nonetheless. It also shares the same common names, and is consequently equally qualified for my friend’s garden.