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Arum Family

This is a unique family, in my opinion, due to their unusual blooms.  Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus), Jack-in-the-Pulpit(Arisaema triphyllum), Arum, Calla (C. palustris), Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum), and Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) are plants found along the eastern states. Philodendron and Dieffenbachia are house plants that are also members of this family. There are about 2,000 species across the globe.

The flowers are very small, on a fleshy spike called a spadix, and are often surrounded by a spathe (a sheath that encloses the flowers). Flies and other insects attracted by the strong and foul (to humans) scent, pollinate the flowers. Berries on most of the plants afterwards. The stems can be rhizomatous, cormose, or tuberous. Many of the species prefer damp or wet conditions. Some species contain calcium oxalate which can be harmful if eaten.  However, deer have been noted to eat the early leaves of Skunk Cabbage before the crystals become plentiful within the plant.  Humans should not try this.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit has been a personal favorite since I first discovered this plant as a child. I love the hooded spathe that covers the spadix. This plant could easily be part of a folktale.  Most of the plants I have seen in the woods have had three oval-shaped leaflets with the stem rising from the center.  The color may be green or purple-mottled. When berries ripen they are bright red and clustered on a cone-shaped head.  Look for them in the spring to early summer in damp areas.

Many turn up their noses, figuratively and literally, when it comes to Skunk Cabbage.  The plant blooms prior to the leaves coming up, although sometimes you will start to see both.  The red-mottled spadix is large and covers the flowers.  Through a process called thermogenesis, the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage produce enough heat that they can melt snow!  The green leaves are large and can be between half to two feet in length.  A swamp full of these plants is truly impressive.  The name comes from the scent that is released when the leaves are bruised or broken.  I have come to enjoy the arrival of this plant which blooms in late winter to early spring.

Golden Club is another unique plant that I have only seen in bloom a few times.  This plant grows in marshes, swamps, and other wet areas.  It blooms in the spring, but not for long.  The sunny yellow flowers are arranged on a long spike.  The leaves and flowers often float on the water.  The berry is only a quarter inch wide.

Just last year I saw my first Sweet Flag plant.  The leaves remind me of a cross between those of Iris and Cattail.  Growing in marshes and along streams, the plants can reach up to six feet.  Look for two or more veins on the spiked leaves.  If there is only one, it is the sterile European Sweet Flag plant.  The flowers are a greenish yellow along a one to three inch spike.

As you get outside to walk or hike, keep your eyes open for these beautiful and unique plants.


  1. Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel

  2. Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman and New England Wild Flower Society

  3. Go Botany

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