Friday, May 29, 2009

Arum Scarum

Dragon arum in Bonnefont garden Dragon arum flower Dragon arum stems

Above, from left: dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) growing in Bonnefont garden; detail of the spathe and spadix common to arums; detail of the reptilian markings on the stems.

Arums and other members of the botanical family Araceae are fly pollinated, and their flowers imitate both the color and the smell of rotting meat in order to attract pollinators. The little cuckoo-pint featured in last week’s post is by no means the most fetid member of the family. Cuckoo-pint’s enormous tropical cousin, Amorphophallus titanum, notorious for its overpowering stench, is native to Sumatra.  The titan arum is also cultivated in conservatories and gains worldwide attention when it blooms in botanical gardens like Kew.

Dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) is an imposing, large-flowered medieval species that blooms in Bonnefont Garden at the end of May or the beginning of June, a week or so later than Arum italicum and several weeks after Arum maculatum. (See “Adam and Eve and Arum,” May 22, 2009). A native of the Mediterranean, it is neither as big nor as smelly as some of the tropical arums, but it is a very striking plant and is often grown as a horticultural curiosity. Although the flower of Dracunculus vulgaris lasts five or six days, it only stinks strongly for a single day, after opening fully. (In botanical nomenclature, the epithet ‘vulgaris’ simply means common or ordinary, but this plant is vulgar in more ways than one.)

Like other arums in the medieval pharmacopoeia, dracontea—or serpentaria, as it was also known—was credited with the power to dissolve obstructions and cleanse the skin. Like A. maculatum, it was both an aphrodisiac and an abortifacient. The same fifteenth-century source that lists the plant’s medicinal applications, the Herbarius Latinus, notes that the dragon arum can be buried and used to generate green and red snakes. A powder made from these can then be burned, causing many serpents to appear (Anderson, German Herbals through 1500, 1984). The practical value of this attribute isn’t made clear, although it might well be useful in frightening enemies or impressing an audience.

Magical properties were ascribed to the dragon arum long before the Middle Ages; the first-century herbalist Dioscorides records the belief that carrying the roots of the plant or rubbing its leaves on the hands affords protection against the bite of vipers. The supernatural character assigned to the plant can be readily understood on encountering it in the flesh, in the garden or in the wild.

Even a scientifically educated modern beholder is struck by the strange form and ominous aura of the dragon arum, and could almost be persuaded of its powers. Those who have only seen Dracunculus in a medieval herbal (it is a frequently depicted plant) or a photographic field guide can’t feel the full force of its association with snakes, sexuality, and death. Only when confronted with the bizarre reptilian markings on the sheaths of its five-foot stems, the large leaves shaped like bat wings, and the fearsome stench emitted by the enormous flower—with its blackish-red spathe and phallic spadix—can we truly comprehend the medieval point of view.

—Deirdre Larkin

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments (4)

  1. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    The dragon arum opened this morning, June 7th, the second of our Garden Days at The Cloisters. The flies have found it.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Today I noticed small leaf basil growing in the magic bed, next to the rue. While I am familiar with culinary and medicinal uses of basil in the Middle Ages, I’m curious about what were considered to be its magical properties.

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Jennifer,

    Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is included in the Magic Bed because of the beliefs associated with the herb in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Greeks and Romans believed basil to be a plant of hatred and misfortune; it would only prosper if the gardener cursed and abused it when the seed was sown. This association of ideas may have given birth to a long-lived belief that there was a special affinity between basil and scorpions, a claim still maintained in the seventeenth century. Scorpions might be found in or beneath pots in which basil was grown, and it was even said that excessive handling or smelling of basil engendered scorpions in the brain.

    Bocaccio’s story of Lisabetta, who planted her murdered lover’s head in a pot of basil and watered it with her tears (Decameron IV, 5) is another instance of the strange and unhappy character assigned to the plant. (This story was famously retold by John Keats, and painted by William Holman Hunt).

    As you mention, our basil grows quite happily next to our rue (Ruta graveolens), despite the fact that the seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed that rue was inimical to basil, and that the latter could not grow near the former. He explained this antipathy as a concomitant of rue’s power as a supreme antidote, and the testimony of Dioscorides, Galen, and Pliny that basil ought not to be consumed. According to medieval herbalists, however, basil was a plant of medicinal value. Both Hildegard of Bingen and the Hortus Sanitatis, recommend its use for a variety of ailments.

  4. JudyThomas Says:

    I adore arums and have a collection of them, smell and all. I missed your D. vulgaris bloom this spring. My D. vulgaris had a huge bloom this year and the scent traveled down the street. My other arums (Amorpho. riverii, henyri and bulbifer and Sauromatum venosum) had nice shows too, but less spectacular. Do visitors ever comment on the “scent?”

Comments are closed.