aroids, with tony avent: jack in the pulpits to elephant ears and more

IF YOU’VE GOT pots of elephant’s ears or calla lilies, or some jack-in-the-pulpits in your shade garden, or maybe philodendron indoors on your windowsill, you’re well on your way to a collection of the plants called aroids. I don’t know anyone with more of these diverse and curious creatures than Tony Avent, who wants to tempt us to collect some, too.

Aroids–members of the Araceae family–are some of the most popular perennials at Plant Delights Nursery, where they’re a specialty and a particular passion of founder Tony Avent’s. I kind of have a thing for them, too, so selfishly I was extra-delighted to speak to him to give us—well, to give me—a tour of the best of the bizarre bunch.

Plus: To celebrate Tony’s 30th year of Plant Delights, and my 10th anniversary of A Way to Garden, I’ll buy a $40 gift certificate for one lucky reader. Enter by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the March 26, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). [Photo up top, Alocasia wentii; below, Arisaema ‘Crossing Over,’ a hybrid Plant Delights 2015 introduction.]

my aroid q&a with tony avent of plant delights


Q. I should first say congratulations and I think a thank you for all gardeners, especially in the United States, for 30 years of Plant Delights Nursery.

A. Yes. It’s pretty amazing. It seems like yesterday.

Q. I know.

A. We’re just very blessed by having an array of people out there who love wild and crazy and unusual plants.

Q. Yes, but your work has made such a difference, and I mean this most heartfelt–it has made such a difference to us as gardeners because it wasn’t that long ago, back in ancient history when we were younger, that you really couldn’t at the local garden center get anything unusual. It was thanks to yourself and a couple of other long-time friends who made it possible for those of us gardening in all kinds of locations to try things, so thank you. [Laughter.]

A. Well, you’re most welcome. It’s been a pleasure for us.

Q. Where I live, Tony, our native wildflower season kicks off—someday if the snow ever melts—with an aroid, which is skunk cabbage, yes, Symplocarpus?

A. Yes.

Q. And I think it ranges maybe to Minnesota and into Eastern Canada and down to maybe you in North Carolina even. Is that possible?

A. It does. There’s actually a couple of native populations in the Raleigh area, and that’s about as far south as it goes. We’re right on the southern end.

Q. Yes, so we have that in common. What makes a plant like that … what makes a plant an aroid?

A. Aroids are plants that have sort of a funky little flower, for people that are most familiar with things like jack-in-the-pulpit or a peace lily inside, or an Anthurium. It has the two sexual parts. It’s got a spathe and spadix.

A spadix, if you look at an anthurium, is that long thing that sticks right out there—you know, it’s a sexual thing. And then the spathe is the thing that wraps it up in a nice package that makes it really colorful. Anthuriums, they’re red, and peace lilies, they’re white, but that’s called a spathe. It’s a modified leaf whose job it is to protect the sex parts, so it does a very good job.

Q. [Laughter.] Every time we get on a call to do one of these shows, Tony, you bring up sex in the first minute or two. I have been timing it, by the way.

A. Well, there’s very few plants that actually don’t engage in that.

Q. I know.

A. If there were, we probably would not have many plants.

Q. I know, I know. Which part is the flower technically? Do you know what I mean?

A. Well, what most people think of as the flower is actually an inflorescence, and it’s made up of several parts. If you take a look at that spadix, that’s again the thing that looks sort of like a finger, if you look down at the very base of that, you will see little tiny things, and those are actually the flowers. They’re either male or female or both.

That’s sort of an interesting thing about aroids is many of them are, well, I hate to bring it up again, but they’re transsexual, especially in jack-in-the-pulpits. When jack-in-the-pulpits are young, they’re male. They’re weak, they’re not able to reproduce. And then next year or the year, after as it gets stronger, it actually switches. It decides, “O.K., well this year, we’re going to be a female.” Of course, then it’s looking for men to impregnate it and then it’ll have seed, and then the next year, it’ll go back to being a male.

Q. Wow. I remember the last time we spoke, we were talking about ferns, and they have their own kind of weird sexual thing. This is sort of another unit in Botanical Sex Education thanks to Tony Avent, right?

A. [Laughter.] Absolutely.

Q. Yes, but these are weirdos, these aroids. I mentioned that we share one native species between my New York region and your North Carolina one. Where are they located on the globe? Where do they grow?

A. Wow. Aroids are pretty widespread. There’s about 3,700 species. Actually, a little over half of those are in the Americas—some in North America, some in Central America, and some in South America.

The majority of the rest are actually Asian. There are a few on the European continent, not very many. We found some in the Mediterranean region. All the groups like the arums, or the lords and ladies and many common names, the arums are primarily European. Not only do they get arums, they got the double arums, which is a really obscure genus called Biarum.

Q. Biarum.

A. Biarum occur in really rocky, dry, horrible Mediterranean places where they get maybe 8 inches of rain a year. It’s not where you would expect to see an aroid.

Q. Right, knowing the ones that we’re more familiar with, like the colocasias and alocasias or calla lily. It’s not what we would expect.

A. No, because those love moisture, and the arums and the biarums are sort of the exact opposite. They like it just absolutely bone dry.

Q. Let’s take sort of a walk through history of your aroid obsession [laughter], because I inferred from an article … I’m so mean to you, I’m sorry.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. I inferred from an article on your website that it was maybe a native jack-in-the-pulpit that was your first aroid? Is that right, an Arisaema?

A. It probably was. Yes, being the antisocial type, I would spend all my time out in the woods as a kid walking around. To see these fascinating plants, I don’t know, I’m the guy that used to watch all the old horror flicks and things like that, and it sort of reminds you of something out of a horror flick. I always said it was a great way to get kids interested in gardening is to get them started on aroids, because they’re odd. If you’re a loner like I am, you’re sort of drawn to odd plants and odd people.

Q. You have in North Carolina, in a lot of the East I think, you have two native Arisaema species? Is that right?

A. Actually, three.

Q. Oh, you have three. I think I only have two here, yes.

A. Yes. It depends on your taxonomist. There’s actually a species called Arisaema quinatum that is finally getting its due. A lot of people just said, “Oh, it’s just a five-leaf version of the three-leaf one.” Well, it’s not. It doesn’t cross. It’s a completely different animal.

Q. Oh, so we have our triphyllum, is that right?

A. Triphyllum and then quinatum, and then the dragon arum, dracontium.

Q. Right, and I didn’t know that until I went to a lecture recently in my area that a local ecology center, and they were showing photos of some of the botanizing they had been doing, and they were talking about some local populations of what they call the green dragon [A. dracontium]. I didn’t know we even had that here, so now of course I’m going to be, as soon as spring comes, on the lookout for it.

A. There you go. It’s really neat. We’ve actually a couple sites in South Carolina found all three species growing together in one population, so that was really neat as a plant nerd.

Q. In the garden, those can be some spectacular ones, but there’s some even more in the genus Arisaema, there are even more spectacular ones. Take us a little bit through, give us a quick tour of that group of plants.

A. Well, of arisaemas, as you mentioned, we’ve got the three. They are always excellent, and they are showy, but the really, truly showy ones are the Asian ones. You really get into Japan, Korea, and China. There’s two groups over there, the ones we call jack-in-the-pulpits and then the ones that actually are called cobra lilies, because they look like the head of a cobra. [Above, the cobra lily A. griffithii var. pradhanii.]

That would be things like Arisaema ringens [below], which is a very popular one, and then you get into the Himalayan ones. That’s where a lot of the really neat cobra-head ones occur, but those are generally at a higher elevation and don’t like our hot summers down here.

Q. I have a spot that doesn’t get hot summers.

A. [Laughter.] Yes, you do. Yes, you’re a little cooler than we are.

Q. Yes, yes.

A. They’re really just a neat group, both the jack-in-the-pulpit types and the cobra-head types, and very easy to grow both. But the colors, you really get more striping and more reds, and you get these very long tongues. It’s basically an extension of other the spadix or the spathe. It can be 2 feet long.

Q. What does it do? It sort of hangs down, and what does it do? Does somebody crawl up it or does something drip down it? What are those for?

A. Well, exactly. Arisaemas are pretty odd-looking. If you’re an insect and you come up and you see that [as below, on A. consanguineum], you’re not quite sure what to do. But if you get this long rope, and it’s like, “All right, well that should be interesting. Let’s climb up there.” And of course, it’s trying to lure it in to have sex with it. It just follows this long rope up and crawls in, and next thing you know, it falls down the tube and it has to try to get out.

Arisaemas are very interesting, because many of them that only have male parts will allow it to go around in circles, and then it will open up to allow it to crawl out. But if it’s got a female in it, it will generally seal them in there, where they have to actually die in there having sex.

Q. Wow. I almost wonder with plants where the “flower”—where it isn’t your classic bright-colored, obvious-looking flower with a yellow center and all that—I always wonder, with some of the plants like this that have these curious inflorescences, if the reason they’re so sometimes lavishly marked… You said they have some of the reddish purple and silvery or white, they have these other neon sign sort of devices, I wonder if that’s what it is. It’s like, “Hey, I know I don’t look like a flower, but I am pretty attractive. Come visit me.” I wonder if that’s what some of that coloration is, too.

A. Yes, absolutely. All plants that have flowers, they’re trying to lure somebody in there to pollinate them, and they do that very well. In this case, it’s more of the purples, the reds. It’s like their very own red light district. “Hey, we’re open for business. Come on in.”

Q. Exactly. You mentioned one of the cobra-lily types. You say ringens. It gets big, right? Does it get big?

A. Yes. Those will get 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. It’s really an amazing plant and on many of our trips, we’ll stumble upon those in the wild, especially in Korea, where they were just absolutely amazing. Just walk in the forest and see these clumps—it looks tropical, but it’s not. They’re among all the other wildflowers. It just looks so fascinating texturally.

Q. Kind of moving on, I went around my garden, sort of a mental trip, trying to think about, “Well, how many aroids do I really have?” Just because the last, I don’t know, five years or something, I’ve been adopting some of the ones that aren’t quite hardy for me and growing them in pots, like the so-called voodoo lilies. I want to talk about those in a second, but in my looking around to find out who else was an aroid to see if I qualified as a collector yet [laughter], I found that the PlantList.org, which is a great place if you want to know who’s related to who botanically, says that Lemna, duckweed, is an aroid.

A. Well, it depends on your taxonomist.

Q. But The Plant List. I’m just saying The Plant List still says that, yes.

A. Yes. It’s like a tug-of-war. It’s like somebody wants to get as many families as they can, so the aroid people latched onto them and then other people have now put them in their own family, the Lemnaceae. It’s a great tug of war, but yes, they don’t look like aroids.

Q. No. Kooky, right?

A. Yes, it’s like a golden club, a wonderful little native aquatic. It doesn’t really look quite like you’re thinking an aroid would look.

Q. No, not at all.

A. There it is.

Q. Yes. About those voodoo lilies, and I have I think Sauromatum and also Amorphophallus konjac. I know around this time of year that I had better hurry down into the cellar and see what’s going on, or it will announce itself what’s going on with this smell of dead rotten meat at any moment. [Above left to right: Sauromatum venosum and Amorphophallus konjac.]

A. [Laughter.]

Q. Because they wake up sometimes in my cellar, even though I haven’t watered them since last year. It’s a problem living up here and trying to overwinter things when you don’t have proper facilities like you have at Plant Delights. [Laughter.] Tell us about some of those so-called voodoo lilies. They’re totally fun, kooky.

A. They really are interesting, and of course, everybody knows the giant Amorphophallus titanum, because when it flowers, everybody goes to see it. They’re very interesting. They’re fly-pollinated, so they’re like, “O.K., to get these flies in, what do we have to do?” They said, “Well, we’ll smell like something rotting,” then the flies just pour in there and do their thing.

They generally go dormant in the wintertime; they’re generally not up for very long. You might have three to four months of growth where they look like little palm trees or big palm trees. Then, they die back to the tuber. When the tuber is dormant, it likes to be really dry, but they’re so much fun.

We had a lady write us one year from up in New Jersey, and she would keep them in the house. And she would store them somewhere and lock them up so nobody could find them, and every year her husband, when they started flowering, would go down and try to find the dead animals. She just got the biggest joy out of this—not telling him what they were.

Q. [Laughter.] Well, it really does smell like that. It’s awful. Even where they’re not hardy, as I said, I think a lot of them are like … I’m a 5B zone, a lot of them are like 6A or 7 or warmer, yes?

A. Yes, absolutely.

Q. They’re great pot subjects. They’re good for growing in containers.

A. They really are very easy, and like I say, you can just store them. You can store them in your dresser drawers during the wintertime. The tubers are really interesting looking, and I’ve actually seen people do that. As long as you get them out, like you say, before they start stinking up the place, they’re really neat plants.

Q. Looking nothing like those really, the elephant ears, the so-called elephant ears: I know some are Colocasia and some are Alocasia. Is there a quick way to tell them apart or what?

A. Yes, a pretty easy way. The alocasias, the new leaves face up with a point [like Alocasia wentii; below,, top of page], and then colocasias face down.

Q. Oh, Tony, why didn’t you tell me that all those years ago? [Laughter.]

A. Well, it’s actually very easy. Of course, the only one that’s bothered me, there’s one called the giant elephant ear, Colocasia gigantea, and it does the opposite. It faces up. It was always the odd man out, but it turns out some folks now have done a study with the DNA and all the modern tools, and found out it’s not a Colocasia, and that’s why it points up. It’s actually a new genus, or a resurrection of an old genus. It’s Leucocasia. That’s going to be a new one, so we can go back to our old rule: All colocasias’ leaves face down; all alocasias’ face up. [Below, left to right, Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ and ‘Black Beauty.‘]

Q. Can both grow even standing in water or not?

A. Most can, yes. There’s a few of the alocasias that probably don’t like growing in water, but the majority of them, yes, very moist; just very moist conditions.

Q. Those must be popular in the catalog, because I know so many of the beautiful leaf patterns and those matte leaves of—I guess ‘Mojito’ was the first one that I knew like that, and now there are so many others. You have some beautiful ones.

A. They really are an amazing group, and we’ve been very blessed to be able to work with some of the top plant breeders to sort of guide them and to say, “You know, if you could cross this with this,” and they come up with these amazing things. Yes, the colors, the textures, and almost all of them are hardy down to zero to 5 Fahrenheit, so you can really bring that tropical color and that tropical texture into a garden in a temperate climate.

Q. Yes. They’re wonderful plants, high drama. Again, I was doing a mental trip around thinking, “Well, what else do I have?” A lot of people might have calla lilies maybe stored up in the North at this time of year. That’s another aroid, right?

A. Absolutely. Callas [genus Zantedeschia] are amazing, and much hardier than people realize. While they’re not overwintering up in zone 5, they’re certainly good down to zero in the garden.

You’ve got two groups. You’ve got the winter-growing, which is one called aethiopica, and that grows and flowers in the winter or early spring. And then you’ve got all the ones that are colored. You’ve got the yellows, the pinks, the reds. Now we’ve got purples and purple and whites. Those are the summer-growers, and those really don’t come up until around for us mid-May and then flower—fantastic cut flowers, all of them. [Above, the purple and white ‘Picasso’ calla lily.]

Q. I want to know about which ones you recommend if we are beginners at this group of plants, if we want to have a starter collection, for instance. What are the ones that we’ve talked about or others or ones that we haven’t talked about that you want me to be sure to look at?

A. Wow. It really depends on where you’re located. I just tell people to find something that fits your zone. Obviously if you want to grow them in containers, you can grow those anywhere. I tend to like the oddest stuff, so I love the Amorphophallus. They’re fascinating. One of my favorites, it’s called the pig’s butt arum.

Q. You made that up. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, of course. All common names are made up.

Q. I know. I’m teasing.

A. It’s Helicodiceros—it’s a Mediterranean plant, and when you see it in flower, it looks and smells exactly like the butt of a pig. [Above, Helicodiceros muscivorus.]

Q. Nice. I didn’t really know exactly what that looked and smelled like, but thank you for sharing. [Laughter.]

A. Well, just imagine something that is rolling around in wet mud for a while and that’s a pig. The flowers on that are so absolutely fascinating. If you want to draw people in, I tend to like plants that will make people remember having seen them. When you see a pig’s butt arum in flower, you can never get that either smell or sight out of your consciousness.

Q. So conversation-starters are your kind of thing.

A. Absolutely, absolutely, yes. All of them, when they’re in bloom, the arums when they’re in bloom are so amazing. The elephant ears, a lot of people don’t realize, the elephant ears flower from mid-summer ’til fall, and the flowers are absolutely delicious in smell. They have that same flower like a peace lily would have.

Q. I’ve always wanted to ask you, because you really are not just a collector of say one thing. Some people have a collection in their homes or in their gardens of one thing, but you’re a collector of many collections. You’ve got a lot of different interests, passions, among plants. I just want to say, any thoughts to offer in the form of advocating for collecting—for specializing in something as a gardener? Do you know what I mean? Do you feel like it’s formed you in some way?

A. Well, absolutely. Humans are natural collectors. Generally, it’s just not plants, but that collection of plants tends to be unfortunately more of a male thing, so we’d love to have more people join us in collecting, because with collecting, especially in one group where you’re really focused on that, is a great way to do ex situ conservation. That’s conservation out of the site, because if we all believe that climate change is happening and always has happened and will continue to happen, preserving plants where they grow naturally is not actually the best idea.

The best idea is to bring them into a garden, propagate them, and share them as far and wide as we can. Our entire focus has been to take as many groups as we can, focus on those, bring them in, study them, and then get them out to people because it’s all about preserving that germplasm for the future of humans.

Q. See, now I didn’t even think of it that way. I didn’t even think of the higher purpose. I guess I knew intellectually, but I didn’t think of it right off the bat.

A. Gardeners are incredible at conservation, and we just need to encourage them to do more of that. No more of this eight plants in your yard. Get as many things as you can in there, and then share them.

Q. Yes. Well, Tony, as ever, I’m always so happy to speak to you. I guess an aroid order from me will be on the way now that you’ve told me about some more that I had never heard of. Again, as I said at the beginning, thank you for 30 years of Plant Delights. It’s been wonderful. Let’s hear it for more, more and more, O.K.?

more from plant delights

enter to win a plant delights gift certificate

TO CELEBRATE Plant Delights‘ 30th anniversary plus A Way to Garden’s 10th, I’ll buy a $40 gift certificate for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page:

Do you know what aroid(s) you have in your garden or on your windowsills? Do tell. Or is there some other plant family or even genus that you collect?

I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 27. Good luck to all. U.S. only.

(All photos from Plant Delights Nursery catalog, used by permission.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 26, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Marilynn Evans says:

    I have none of these plants but you have given me lots of ideas for my part shade areas.
    I’m definitely going to try the beautiful black elephant ears and the lilies. I’ve been pouting
    looking for plants with color for these areas.

  2. Beverly Fisk says:

    I have most recently added a. ringens to my gardens. Despite a cold and unpredictable winter it’s doing wonderfully here in 7b.

  3. Maureen says:

    I have several kinds of elephant ears waiting to be potted and readied for the garden. They are a favorite. I also like to put them in the ground and see how big I can grow them. They do need good soil and lots of water!

  4. Dee Waddell says:

    I have a voodoo lily that I look forward to coming up each year. If I would win the gift certificate I would definitely have to buy a pig’s butt arum. I’ve always liked unusual plants.

  5. Janis Barry says:

    I am familiar with some but not all of these amazing plants. Always on the lookout for plants that do well in shade for my property…Great information.

  6. Melody Lee says:

    I grow the small voodoo lilies (Amorphophallus bulbifer, I believe) and the they smell awful – like rotten hamburger. I don’t think I would want to be around a big one – lol

  7. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: William Jury. Thanks to all of you for your enthusiasm about these oddballs. (Not me and Tony, but the Aroids, I mean.)

  8. If I plant some of these plants other than the Elephant Ears should I cover them up it the minister comes. Just kidding. I planted Cone flowers and Gold Strum the same amount of each. The Gold Strum took over the Cone Flowers I move what was left and planted them by themselves They multiplied and I gave a lot away all but two. They bloomed but these two never multiplied. I bought about six or in the spring of 2017. This older Cone flowers must be at least 7 years like I said never multiplied. I was looking in the yard this spring and all of them have multiplied old and new. Could my old ones both have been the same sex. I have heard of that but did not quite believe. But seeing is believing.

  9. Victoria Bronson says:

    Thanks for the encouragement !
    I have many Elephant ears, Jack in the pulpit.
    I have been collecting helioboris from you. You may say I have an addiction to them.

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