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Weirdly wondrous

20 April 2023
agapetes incurvata gotbot 2015 003
Dramatically veined leaves distinguish Agapetes incurvata.

Snake-like, sometimes hermaphrodite and always flamboyant, members of the extraordinary Arisaema and Agapetes families are guaranteed to intrigue. Words Vivienne Bailey

Not all flowers are beautiful. Some have a weird, alien-like appearance – none more so than the members of the Arisaema genus, who are endowed with a certain Harry Potter strangeness as if touched by a wizard’s wand. These are out-of-the-ordinary plants to tuck into your special corner.

Arisaema ringens, commonly called the cobra lily, is a tuberous perennial belonging to the Araceae (or arum) family, and a native of Japan, China and Korea. The plant grows from a roundish ball or large round disc and likes sheltered, partly shaded or woodland conditions (much like hostas) and a soil rich in organic matter. Handsome, glossy green foliage is produced, but you need to look hard to find the flowers (which are hidden underneath).

Although foliage varies, there are often only two leaves per shoot, and these are divided, sometimes quite finely. They make a frilled base for the erect flowering stem that emerges from the centre, the spadix (a fleshy flower stalk that bears many tiny flowers and is typical of the arum family). The stems vary considerably in height depending on the species and carry a single flower spike in spring or early summer.

A similar-looking Arisaema, A. speciosum, is more commonly called the cobra plant. An easy variety, happy in semi-shade, it differs in having a spathe (a large sheath enclosing the flower cluster) that is strongly striped on its interior and is hooded rather than distinctly curled. The mottled flower stem produces a curious flower in a brownish burgundy shade, which closely resembles a hooded cobra. Like A. ringens, it is easy to miss these unusual flowers as they are held beneath the leaves – best to plant on a slope where you can see into the plantings.

The early-summer blooming A. candidissimum is one of the prettiest varieties. The charming pale-pink and white hooded blooms burst from the ground before the foliage, and briefly emit a sweet fragrance just after flowering.

A. tortuosum, commonly known as whipcord cobra lily, is relatively easy to grow (in full shade), but care needs to be taken to ensure bulbs remain dry during winter (to prevent rot). The plant seeds freely, although it can be propagated from offsets. Growing 75cm tall, the green hooded flowers sit above the foliage.

From Western China, A. elephas lives up to its name with the spadex developing a long, curved appendage extending to the ground. The 30cm flower stem holds a spathe around 15cm long that is deep purple with white striping at the base.

Growing to a splendid 1m tall with two leaves each divided into 5–20 leaflets up to 15cm long, A. serratum produces a spathe 8–10cm long that is pale green with purple spotting or purple all over, sometimes with white stripes.

More tricky to grow but an amazing sight in spring is A. sikokianum, with its outlandish spadix and hooded spathe rising prominently above the foliage. The flower stem is around 45cm tall; the spathe is 15–20cm long and deep purple on the outside, with a stark white interior. The spadix is also pure white with a weird, upright, club-shaped appendage.

To add to the plant’s strange tendencies, arisaemas are classed as hermaphrodites. When young or growing weakly, they are male. Only when the conditions are optimal and the plant is strong do they become female and capable of reproduction. If they need respite after a season of prolific seed set or drought stress, they revert to male again.

Drama queens

Bringing another display of the peculiar to the garden is a flamboyant type originating from tropical and subtropical Asia, the Malay Archipelago, the Pacific Islands and Australia. A group of 90 or so species, Agapetes (syn. Pentapterygium) is an odd member of the heather (and blueberry) family, Ericaceae, and is primarily low growing. However, many species, such as Agapetes serpens (Himalayan lantern), are epiphytic and can be found in the forks of rainforest trees or on cliffs or boulders.

Possibly the most widely grown, A. serpens hails from the mountains of Nepal, Bhutan and northern Assam. Red snake-like branches (serpens is the Latin word for snake) emerge from the plant’s strange, fleshy caudex (or water-storing root), which can become quite large in drought conditions. For most of the year, the long pendulous branches are adorned with scarlet tubular blossoms marked with darker chevron markings, so the plant is often described as a ‘vegetable octopus’. The dangling, five-sided flowers resemble small Chinese lanterns and are favourites of nectar feeding birds such as waxeyes and bellbirds. Attractive, pale-coloured, fleshy berries (edible but not that tasty) appear after flowering. The plant’s arching habit makes it an excellent hanging basket specimen – place it at or above eye level to enjoy the blooms. If you decide to plant in the garden it needs to be planted high, with the tuber or roots exposed or covered only by coarse humus.

A. serpens prefers shelter, humidity and a well-drained soil of open texture but adapts readily to garden conditions. Although not a fan of warmer climes, the plants will grow happily in full sun – growing in sunny spots gives a redder colour to the leaves; when placed in shade or semi-shade, the foliage is mainly green.

A. incurvata is a 1m-tall shrub with long scrambling branches and strongly veined leaves. Happy to grow in full sun or partial shade, it produces groups of long tubular flowers of a pale, flesh-pink colour crossed with darker bars of pink.

A. ‘Scarlet Elf’ is a favourite of bees with its waxy, orange-red flowers, which have been likened to ‘dropping pieces of wax’. A. ‘Ludgvan Cross’ is a hybrid of A. serpens and A. incurvata. It is more like the former, except it has larger leaves and slighter larger, paler flowers.

Members of the Arisaema family would never win a beauty contest but their weird, otherworldly appearance attracts the eye, while the unique, drama-queen style of Agapetes carries a quirky touch of the curious. This intriguing duo provide a taste of the unusual to pique our interest.

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