We had a very mild autumn and early winter here in Norwich and many plants flowered much earlier than usual. Our wallflowers began to flower in December and daffodils began to flower at least a month early.
Our Mouse Plant, Arisarum proboscideum, also flowered early this year. It came into flower in January and is still in full flower as I write. In a more normal year (if we get them any more) it would be in flower in April and May.
Mouse Plant is a native perennial from south-west Spain and central and southern Italy, where it grows in woodland. Like many woodland plants, its leaves emerge from the soil early in the spring, then it flowers and dies back, becoming totally dormant after midsummer. It likes to grow in woodland soil with a reasonable supply of moisture (“moist but well drained“) but it doesn’t like very clay heavy soils. A low, spreading plant, it only reaches 20 centimetres (eight inches) in height.
I grow my plant in a pot because this is the best way to see its structure, including the unusual flowers that resemble a family of mice nesting beneath the glossy green arrow-shaped leaves. Growing it in a pot also means that I can give it slightly richer soil than our garden’s sandy loam and I can keep it in a shady place for most of the year. If you have a shady spot in your garden with the right type of soil, Mouse Plant will happily spread – albeit very politely – and will cover the ground. If you keep it in a pot, make sure it is well watered, but not waterlogged. The Gardening Knowhow website has some good tips for growing the plant. It is quite hardy and shrugs off most frosts. In the United States, it is hardy in USDA Zone 7 and, in a sheltered location, USDA Zone 6. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, the plant flowers from September to November.
Mouse Plant is a member of the Araceae, the Arum family, which also contains larger plants such as Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculatum), Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) and the spectacular Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum), from Sumatra, which has to been seen and smelt to be believed. Members of the Araceae have flowers borne on an inflorescence known as a spadix, which is often partially enclosed in a leaf-like bract known as a spathe. In the Mouse Plant, the spadix is hidden away within the hooded dark purplish-brown spathe which grows up to five centimetres (two inches) long and tapers into a tail that can reach fiteen centimetres (six inches) long. Small flies, such as fungus gnats, are attracted to the flowers by a faint smell (said to be like mushrooms) that is hardly noticeable to the human nose. Once inside, the insects transfer pollen from male to female flowers as they attempt to escape.
The name Arisarum is derived from the Greek word arisaron, which was used by Dioscorides in reference to aris, aridos, which was the name of a small herb mentioned by Pliny. Proboscideum comes from the Greek word proboskis (‘proboscis’ in English), which means “elephant’s trunk”.
If you want to encourage children to garden (and I recommend that you do), the Mouse Plant may help. The Pioneer Plants website tells us that “children can easily divide established clumps in early summer, and have their own nest of mice the following year”. But why should children have all the fun? This plant is worth growing to delight the inner child, whatever their age.
I bought my plant from a local nursery but it is also available online in the UK from The Beth Chatto Gardens.