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Cousin to Jack

Oof, hasn't been a blog since April...though I have been rather busy with the YouTube channel and repotting things, so there are some excuses.

BUT, we're back with a brand new species to examine, one that has just decided to bloom for me for the first time! Not a carnivorous plant, but one that's odd enough to catch my attention anyway, and it is beautiful.

The newly opened flower on this lovely aroid.

Many people have at least a passing familiarity with the plant commonly referred to as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, or Arisaema triphyllum, a common eastern North American woodland plant and a fairly easy to grow aroid (that same family as Philodendrons, the Voodoo Lily and Dragon Arum, and the famed corpse flowers from the genus Amorphophallus -check the YouTube channel for a vid on one of those too!). A plant of mild stature, with three-lobed leaves maybe a foot tall and a similarly tall green or purplish and mildly striped flower stalk, it's odd, often confused with American pitcher plants and other carnivores, and also only one species in a genus that contains nearly 200 species, most of which are found in Asia. That cluster includes the focus of today's blog: Arisaema fargesii, Farges' Cobra Lily.

A side profile; one can see where it got the "cobra lily" nickname.

Personally, I like saying the scientific name better, and also like to avoid "cobra lily" for this plant as there is that famed carnivore Darlingtonia californica that fits the title so much better (common names; they're terribly unreliable and often confusing).

But I digress. While not as familiar as the common Jack, this aroid is quite the easy, and showy grower, if sometimes a little slower to bloom simply due to the size it reaches before doing so. A native to central China, a region of moderate seasons and deciduous forests, it's a temperate plant that doesn't like really cold snaps but can tolerate year-round outdoor conditions if in the ground for most climate zones (roughly zones 6-11). In the summer, the tuber (which may be over 8 inches across in some cases) first puts up one to (rarely) several three-lobed leaves that in its natural semi-shady conditions can get quite large, nearly 3 feet across or sometimes more, and of similar height (though typically a bit smaller, 18-24" across).

If you're hard on them like me, then that leaf may be more squat and average around a foot across in strong sunlight.

The lush leaf of this species, broad round lobes that can tolerate quite a lot of light as I've forced it to find out.

These leaves last generally the whole growing season, spreading out across the ground and, as the plant develops offshoots and spreads, creates a beautiful short canopy over the ground. Tubers that are big enough may simultaneously, or shortly after leafing out, send up a short, thick stalk from which the inflorescence develops. Yes, that colorful bloom is not a flower itself; rather, the colorful visible part is a modified bract, known as a spathe, and in this species can reach up to a foot tall with a shocking pattern of deep purple or brownish against white stripes that run parallel all the way along the length of the structure. Naturally, that means it's typically shaded and somewhat hidden by those overarching leaves, but the mild odor it will put out when mature attracts its pollinators well enough even if they can't see it directly.

Top view of the spathe, showing the strongly striated pattern.

When the structure matures fully, the spathe develops a slender, pendulous tip that often hangs down in the front and can be nearly the length of the rest of the bloom on its own, a broad arching "hood" whose edges curl back to make it flare notably and underneath which the odor-producing maroon spadix (a slender, bumpy thing shaped roughly like a thick pipe cleaner) sits, and then at the base of the spadix hidden within the tubular base of the spathe are the true flowers themselves, often several dozen of them. The flowers are typically dioecious; that is, each plant is only either male or female, which eliminates the chance of self-pollination and forces them to cross so that genetic variation is maintained. Each plant may actually switch sexes between years however, partly to help maintain resources in the tuber (as being female and making seeds takes a lot of energy; pollen from a male not so much). Thus, a handful of differently aged tubers that offset from each other may be able to cross-pollinate if they bloom at the same time (with help from the attracted pollinators like flies and beetles of course; the sheltered flowers don't wind-pollinate very well). If they are pollinated, the ovaries of the female flowers swell up as the spathe dies away and exposes them before maturing as bright reddish or orange berries that contain the desiccation-sensitive seeds inside.

A terrible view, trying to expose the actual flowers within the base of the spathe. I think this year mine may be female.
Looking down the throat of the flower from under the hood; the spadix is visible sticking up out of the tube.

At the end of the growing season, the leaves will change to a brilliant yellow as all the cells break down the photosynthesizing components and chlorophyll, returning nutrients to the tuber, before dying off completely. The plant will then sit dormant, and in cultivation can even be removed from the pot and kept completely dry somewhere to avoid rot, in cool temperatures all winter long. Eventually in the next season warming weather and increasing daylength will trigger the plant to start its cycle all over again, often alongside those new tubers that formed from extra resources gathered.

This is, overall, quite an easy plant to grow. If you're in the right climate zone and don't have winters that are too wet, you just put the tubers into a well-drained, nutrient rich soil patch somewhere in the yard, preferably under a tree or bush where they will eventually create a lush looking understory. Otherwise, a gallon or so sized pot or larger suits well, filled with a rich, well-draining soil mix (to keep the nutrient levels up but not overbearing I often use a compost and perlite mix and add slow-release fertilizer pellets throughout the soil, as well as an occasional liquid fertilizer application). Even moisture, preferably never soaking wet but also never completely dry, should be kept throughout the growing season, and if you have multiple plants already and want to try making seeds, look for the flowers with yellow pollen globs on them and put them on the sticky stigmas of the females. Seeds are removed from the berries and then just pushed into the soil, and allowed to germinate as they see fit. Usually, they only take a couple of weeks, and the seedlings can grow rapidly. When dormant, especially if the plants are in the ground or still buried within a pot, do not water them at all until the new growth for the year emerges as the tubers may otherwise rot in the presence of too much moisture.

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