Friday, May 22, 2009

Adam and Eve and Arum

Arum maculatum Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity Arum italicum in Flower

Above, from left: Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) growing in Bonnefont Garden; Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity that shows cuckoo-pint growing within the enclosure; Italian arum, (Arum italicum) growing in Bonnefont Garden.

Of all the spring-blooming “cuckoo plants” (see “Sumer is Icumen In,” April 3, 2009) associated not only with the bird but with magic, sexuality, snakes, and death, the cuckoo-pint or wake-robin is the most famous.

The form of the flower is peculiar to the botanical family known as the Araceae, which includes tropical species from Africa as well as European woodland flowers and the American natives Jack-in-the-pulpit and skunk cabbage. The flower consists of a hood, or spathe, and a rod, or spadix. (Note the purplish, fleshy color of the spadix above). The form of the cuckoo-pint suggested copulation to the medieval mind, and the plant was known by a number of names that expressed either its venereal character (”Adam and Eve,” “lords and ladies,” “cuckoo-pintle,” and “wake-robin”) or its sinister aspect (”adder’s food” or “snake’s meat”).

The mark of the cuckoo-pint’s bad character was a blackish-purple spotting on the leaves, which appears to be a defect, but which is natural to the plant. This spot is the macula of the specific name maculatum, which is Latin for “stained.” The stock we now grow in the garden lacks this spotting; I am reasonably sure that it is indeed Arum maculatum, but it may be a garden form from which the spots have been bred out. (Since the spots appear to be necrotic and give the impression that the plant is diseased, they would be considered undesirable in an ornamental plant.) However, the characteristic spotting can be seen on the leaves of the single cuckoo-pint that peeps through the rails of the captive Unicorn’s enclosure (see detail image above). We are searching for the true species, spots and all, and should be able to obtain seed from a European botanical garden.

The tuberous roots of the cuckoo-pint are starchy. The tubers were used in a nutritious preparation similar to arrowroot that was consumed in the Middle Ages and long after. They were not only a food but also an aphrodisiac, cf. John Lyly’s  amorous foresters, who “have eaten so much wake-robin that they cannot sleep for love” (The Complete Works of John Lyly, Richard Warwick Bond, Published by The Clarendon Press, 1902).

The tubers had to be dried and heated before consumption because they contain an acrid substance that causes a burning, prickling sensation in the mouth when eaten fresh, as do the red berries that ripen in autumn. Sixteenth-century laundresses used the starch to stiffen ruffs, and the great English herbalist John Gerard remarked that the women’s hands were chapped, blistered, and smarting from handling it.

More on arums, and their noisome odor, to come . . .

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Comments (9)

  1. Authentic Italian Cuisine Blog Says:

    facinating, never heard of that.

    Regards
    David Moretti

  2. Anthony Lyman-Dixon Says:

    I shouldn’t bother getting the spotted seeds from Europe, Rufinus merely suggests that the non-spotted form is the female plant. He didn’t seem to have noticed that the plants multiply quite happily in the absence of both “sexes”

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Anthony—I’m very glad to hear from you on this. This isn’t the first time you’ve cited Rufinus, who has not hitherto been on my bookshelf, but I’ve ordered a copy of the Thorndike edition! There are a number of plants of the same species whose variants were given male and female identities in the Middle Ages: e.g., the male scarlet pimpernel being red, and the blue sport female. Although many European plants of meadows and roadsides are naturalized in the U.S., our own natives still dominate in woodlands. I’ve often seen our Jack-in-the-pulpit (an English plant name borrowed from your arums and applied here to Arisaema triphyllum) in the northeastern U.S., but I’ve never seen A. maculatum growing spontaneously. The USDA Invasive Plant Database records Arum italicum, a commonly-grown garden plant here, as an escape. It has been reported in North Carolina and on the West Coast but the USDA has no record of cuckoo-pint naturalizing anywhere in this country. It is not often grown in gardens here, either—except in Shakespeare Gardens or other refuges for storied aliens like the gardens of The Cloisters. I’m very grateful to you for the information that spotted and unspotted individuals grow happily together—it is not something I would have discovered for myself. I would still like to acquire some spotted specimens, since the spotting was an indicator of the character assigned to the plant.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Arums are fascinating. There’s a very good profile, Aroids: Plants of the Arum Family, by Deni Bown. It was first published in 1988 and was very well-received, and a second, expanded edition appeared in 2000.

  5. lulupix Says:

    I am afraid it might be a bit too distant but I would love to invite you all to see the beautiful spotted arums that grow in our few extant woods near Anzio, Italy.

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Lulupix—Would that I could come and see them in the flesh! It is always exciting and interesting to see a plant I know only as a garden subject in its natural habitat. If you have any digital photographs of your spotted arums, or plan on taking any, please do share them with us.

  7. Jax Says:

    Well, we have a garden full of them - and you are welcome to them all!

    They are extremely poisonous, smell disgusting and attrack large clouds of flies - especially midges.

    You might think it nice to grow one or two for novelty, but you may regret it. My gardener spends hours every year digging them up - they are almost impossible to get rid of as they have extensive and very deep roots.

  8. Jay Chua Says:

    Fascinating to read this blog.

    I only know Arum has deep tuberous roots, somewhat resembling those of the Potato. I also read somewhere arum can be used as poison medicine in ancient Elizabethan times, but I am not sure whether it’s truth or not.

    Jay Chua
    Publisher, PorchSwingSets.com

  9. Donna Clark Says:

    We have a very large patch of arum scarum which is in a woodland area on our property. We’ve never noticed it before and wondered how can such a thing just occur? We live in Middle TN, just east of Nashville. Thank you, Donna

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