This week’s #SxPOTW is a common plant that can be found throughout Sussex. The leaves, which emerge beneath hedges and in woodland and other shady places, are one of the most obvious signs of new growth each year, forcing their way vertically from the ground before unfurling. And they can be prolific.
Native. Sx: ubiquitous. Woodland; scrub; hedges and shaded road verges. Very common in shaded habitats, but most abundant on moist base-rich soils. It was too common to have been mapped in Hall (1980), in which it is said to have occurred in 92% of tetrads. From 2000–2015 it has been seen in 94.6% of tetrads.Source: Arum maculatum L., The Flora of Sussex (2018)
The ‘maculatum’ in the binomial refers to dark spots that are sometimes found on leaves and the flowers.
The flowers are appearing now. They are formed of an encircling, leaf-like spathe, containing the spadix with its terminal appendix. The latter is visible from one direction, surrounded by the protected hood of the spadix (see first photo above), and is usually purple (rarely yellow). The flowers themselves are located further down below a ring of hairs. They are unisexual (as opposed to the flowers of most our flora, which are hermaphrodite, containing both male and female parts) with the females below the males.
The purpose of this elaborate structure is to entice pollinators. The flowers are scented (although I can’t say I’ve ever noticed the allegedly faecal smell) and the temperature within the flower can be up to 15 degrees warmer than ambient. The ring of hairs is to ‘trap’ the small flies, although not sufficiently efficiently to kill them, as is seen with carnivorous plants, just long enough for pollen to be deposited on the stigmas of the female flowers and picked up from the male anthers. The leaves and spathe die away leaving the female flowers to develop into the familiar cluster of red/orange berries on their stalk by the autumn, while the rhizomes store energy needed to send the leaves up the following year.
The common names given above are the commonest now in use, but there are a plethora of others which have fallen out of use. These include snakeshead, adder’s root, arum, wild arum, arum lily, devils and angels, cows and bulls, dog’s cocks, dog’s dibble, great dragon, Lily grass, soldiers diddies, priest’s pintle, Adam and Eve, bobbins, naked girls, naked boys, starch-root, wake robin, friar’s cowl, willy lily (my new favourite), sonsie-give-us- your-hand, jack in the pulpit and cheese and toast. Most refer to the resemblance of the flower to male and female genitalia. The word ‘pint’ is a bowdlerised version of ‘pintel’, an Old English name for penis, and rhymes with ‘lint’ rather than being pronounced like the standard measure for beer. It was thought to be the aron of Dioscorides, which was also the drakontia, or dragon-plant, whose properties included the incitement of lust.
The rhizomes were used to make starch for linen, which explains the starch-root name. The plant also contains saponin chemicals which can be very irritating to skin and are poisonous. Despite this, the ground root was also used to make a drink and as a thickening for sauces (like arrowroot).
A closely related species is A. italicum (Italian Lords-and-Ladies) which exists as two subspecies, ssp. italicum and ssp. neglectum. The former is introduced and more widespread, having been naturalised from garden specimens. Its leaves have markedly pale veins, divergent basal lobes and are never spotted. The fruits have 2 – 4 seeds. The latter is native but rare, with pale venation, convergent basal lobes (sometimes overlapping) and occasional spots. The fruits have 1 – 2 seeds. Both have leaves appearing before A. maculatum (October/November) and yellow spadices which aren’t as long as those of A. maculatum. In the latter the spadix extends at least half the length of the spathe, whereas in A. italicum it rarely extends more than one third of its length.
It is the first monocotyledon in our #SxPOTW series.
There is a magnificent book in the Collins New Naturalist series of monographs, by Cecil T. Prime, devoted to Lords-and-Ladies, and a wonderful book of photographs called Wild Arum by Lynden Smith. Both are desirable, but perhaps for different reasons.