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Plant Profiles: Arisaema


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart




Weird, tuberous woodland perennial

Part shade, adequate moisture, humus-rich soil, good to great drainage, human blood

Bad drainage and poor, parched soil

Mark where you put your plants so you won't inadvertently destroy them in spring; mulch heavily in late fall in more extreme climates

Bulbous plant

Yikes! It's the Attack of the Aroids! It's the Arisaemas, chlorophyllic aliens in life forms resembling hooded cobras, miniature owls, and -- according to one source who survived an encounter -- men with "cute little ears that resemble a flustered Ross Perot." Wearing helmetlike spathes over their spiked spadices (more, later, on Alienwear), they are multiplying in numbers and stealing gardeners' souls.

It takes only one Arisaema to overpower any number of Homo sapiens. Not unlike a cobra, the plant hypnotizes its prey. It strikes by captivating the imagination, and the result is not pretty: Men and women of reason who were once happy enough growing flowers fast become acolytes of the Unholy Weird.

What's the allure? The improbability that plants like these can exist at all. From the ground up, they defy expectation: Stems wrapped in zigzagged snakeskins, and hooded flowers that fold back on themselves as if to protect an unspeakable secret. Some species have all but swallowed the evidence; out of their mouths dangle what seem to be the tails of hapless rodents that have taken a look-see and fallen right in.

The anatomy of all this weirdness breaks down into easily identifiable parts: the spathe is the leafy covering that encases the flower, and the spadix is the fleshy, clublike thing sitting inside (the "Jack" in the "pulpit"). The so-called mouse tail is the dental floss-like entrail at the ends of some spadices (plural of "spadix") or, in a few cases, at the end of the spathe. The entire ensemble often sits below the plant's leaves.

It's important that you know all this in order to identify the alien, because its general outward appearance varies considerably. Plants range from the eight- to eighteen-inch native Jack, Arisaema triphyllum, to the five-foot whipcord Jack, A. tortuosum, with a tail described by one eyewitness as looking like "the tongue of a tired bulldog." Single leaves can be multifingered and hover high in the air like umbrellas (A. taiwanensis, called the queen of the genus) or can look more like corrugated plastic rhubarb leaves in minty green (A. griffithii, with a cobra-headed flower about as sinister as an arisaema is ever likely to be).

Though the hooded beast is usually what undoes the victim (who then falls prey to bigger, uglier aroids such as the voodoo lily -- but that's another story), some forms have enormous foliage appeal. A. serratum in particular is incredibly arresting: two hand-shaped green leaves highlighted by dramatic silver linings, perched on top of purple-patterned, reptilian stems.

Yet even if you've avoided infection by leaf, once the so-called flowers emerge, say goodbye to your reason. First you'll be seeing an owl face in the doubled-over spathe of A. kiushianum: a flat nose accented by two hoot-owl eyes. It's all very cute, considering. Next thing, you'll be stared down by the brooding purple A. urashima (syn. A. thunbergii var. urashima) and will find yourself snared by its whip of a spadix, which has been known to measure two feet long.

Arisaemas are way too clever to simply terrify or astonish their prey. One of the most beautiful species is not at all intimidating but impossibly luminescent in an alien way. A. sikokianum has a dark purple pitcher and a hood that's wide open -- no tricks, no tendrils. But sitting inside is a small bald being surrounded by a pulsing white light, the kind you'd expect if you'd opened the lid of a buried treasure chest and found, inside, the Holy Grail.

Help! It's happening! I'm losing my grip! Quickly, then, I leave you with this whispered warning: If you open a plant catalog and see arisaemas listed, burn it immediately. The nurseryman is one of them.


A. candidissimum: Sweet-scented, pink- striped white spathe, as graceful as a call lily; notoriously late to emerge, so be patient; 16 inches

A. ringens: Glossy, trifoliate leaves; green-and-purple striped spathe with purple lip; great view inside hood 12 inches

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.