Sunday, July 06, 2008

In the mystical world of plant taxonomy, there are characteristics that group plants together. Some plants in the same family don’t look like they even know each other. But there are other plants that, if you saw them sitting together, you would know were cousins. Such are the Arums.

The Araceae is a family of herbaceous plants. They are also called Arums, though the true Arums are a genus, or smaller group, within the Araceae family. The Araceae may live on land or in the water and have simple leaves or compound leaves, but the family trait most easily identifiable is the peculiar flower – a long, round spadix swathed in a silky petal called a spathe.

One of the handsomest of the summer flowering bulbs, I think, is an Arum of the Zantedeschia genus, called “Calla Lily.” Now, to add to the confusion, the Calla Lily is neither a Calla (yet another genus), nor a true lily (a whole different family). No matter. It is elegant and easy to grow and is quite happy here in our Aiken soil, surviving our mild winters outdoors nicely.

The Calla Lily flower is quite dramatic and is at its most eye-catching when it’s shown alone or with other Calla Lilies. I’ve seen the large florist varieties in white, carried by brides and bridesmaids and on the altar on the day of a baptism. Remember the Diego Rivera flower vendor paintings or the Georgia O’Keefe flower studies? There’s a book titled Georgia O’Keefe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940 that credits Sigmund Freud for the flower’s popularity.

I think it could have made it without Freud, but whatever the reason for its popularity, the Calla Lily has continued to be a well-loved flower, both in the garden and in a vase.

Jim Wilson lists Calla Lilies in his book, Bullet Proof Flowers for the South, reminding us to plant them in well-drained soil so that the bulbs won’t rot during wet winter weather, or grow them in a pot fill with “moderately fast-draining soilless mix.

The bulbs I planted several years ago in the sunny side bed have blooms that have lasted several weeks already. Propagate them by dividing the tubers in late summer or early fall, and cover them with pine straw mulch and they will very likely make it through the winter.

I stopped by more than once at the Shady Characters booth at this year’s Aiken Garden Show and one of the unusual plants that caught my eye was another handsome Arum called Pinellia tripartita ‘Dragon Tales.’ Each of the light green three lobed leaves of this plant is variegated with creamy yellow. Some leaves are all yellow, some half green and half yellow, some streaky yellow and some all green. “The unstable variegation pattern is what makes this a truly fascinating plant,” says Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh. The flowers are produced all summer and can also be variegated.

Pinellia likes moist woodland soils and, like all Shady Characters plants, part shade. I brought it home and put it a pot with ‘Molly Bush’ Heuchera and some lovely peacock moss, also from Shady Characters. They make a handsome trio.

Everette and Karen Jones opened their nursery called Shady Characters out Wire Road near 1-20 several years ago, and they offer a huge selection of cool plants made for the shade. They began with a good collection of Heuchera and Hosta, and have continued to expand to other shade tolerant plants such as Heucherella (a sterile cross between Heuchera and Tiarella) and Pulmonaria and another unusual flower called Spigelia marilandica.

I haven’t dared make a trip out to their Wire Road place this year. Though their prices are quite reasonable, I find too many things I can’t live without that I know I can’t find anywhere else. If you have some shady spots that need some attention, give them a call to be sure they’re open at 803 269-3309 and take a drive out to see them. You won’t be disappointed.