A common woodland plant with a not so common life cycle. Although the leaves have been up since February it is only now that the unusual ‘flowers’ become visible. If you are having a walk in a local woodland look down at ground level and spot these striking pale green sheath-like leaves wrapping round a purple or sometimes yellow needle-like structure or spadix as it is known. The sheath-like leaf or spathe is not the flower it is actually a modified leaf which curls around the spadix and then hidden from view, at the base of the spadix, are finally the tiny flowers, first the male flowers then many clusters of female flowers. The role of the spadix is to give off a smell of decay but also amazingly it gives off heat which together attracts pollinators. If you gently touch the spadix you can feel this warmth!
The preferred pollinators are midges, usually female and visiting at night. Before the midges can reach the flowers they pass through a ring of hairs which then trap them in the base of the structure and keep them in there for several hours while they pollinate the flowers and enjoy the warmth! This ability for some plants to regulate heat is known as thermogenesis and has been fascinating scientists for years. For example Arum Maculatum can raise it’s temperature if covered in snow to melt it which then allows the leaves to come through. An intriguing capability!
The plant also contains oxalate crystals which are released if the plant is damaged. They act as an irritant to skin, the sensation has been described as feeling like ‘many small needles being broken into the skin’, therefore this plant in not recommended as natural toilet paper if you are ever caught short!
By the autumn the flower spike has transformed into the familiar stalk of red berries you might spot on the woodland floor. This total transformation is another captivating quality of this plant. There is another variegated version of this plant ( Arum italicum or Italian Lords and Ladies)which you might see along side the more common Arum maculatum. See if you can spot both species and the differences in the spathe and spadix!