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Marge Talt on Pinellias

Rob's introduction

As a beginning gardener, I was always sure to check out the Shade Gardening columns on Suite 101, written by Marge Talt. One article that I found myself referring back to again and again was the one on the genus Pinellia. So when I found recently that it had disappeared from Suite101.com, I was eager to get the information back online. With Marge's permission, the original article is reproduced below. I removed some links to resources that are no longer available, and tweaked the layout to fit with robsplants.com – the rest is all Marge's!

Wild, Wonderful Aroids
Part 5 – Pinellia


© Marge Talt, May 16, 2003

Compared to their close cousins, Arisaema, the genus Pinellia "don't get no respect". This is unfair. While most of them aren't as exotic as many Arisaema, they add their own charm to the shady garden. Place them near a path so you can see the inflorescence and enjoy the foliage.

Commonly called little green dragons (I've also seen 'false dragon' used), they thrive in shade in the south but can take more sun in northern climates. A moist, fertile soil is best, with good drainage because they prefer a relatively dry winter rest period.

According to The Pinellia Page on Roy Harold's Arisaema site, there may be as many as ten species, found primarily in China, Japan and Korea. Of these, four are commonly in cultivation in the US and Europe, listed here showing known hardiness zone and low temperature from the IAS hardy aroid listing:

  • Pinellia cordata (Zone 4b, Ithaca, NY) -10°F / -23°C
  • Pinellia tripartita (Zone 4b, Ithaca, NY) -25°F / -31°C
  • Pinellia pedatisecta (Zone 4b, Ithaca, NY) -10°F / -23°C
  • Pinellia ternata (Zone 4b, Ithaca, NY) -10°F / -23°C

Named for Giovanni Vincenzo Pinelli, a sixteenth century Italian, founder of the Botanic Gardens of Naples, Italy, the genus has also been called Atherurus or Hemicarpurus in the past, according to Krzysztof Kozminski's Pinellia page. A search on the word 'Atherurus' turns up references to assorted porcupines or hedgehogs. I fail to see the connection.

While seemingly very similar to Arisaema, Roy's Pinellia Page lists the following difference between the two genera:

  • Pinellia never has more than one seed per fruit;
  • Pinellia seedheads always flop to the ground (some Arisaema do this occasionally, but it's not usual); seeds are green when ripe instead of red or orange as in Arisaema;
  • Pinellia flower stems always rise directly from the tuber and have no leaves - this occurs in some Arisaema, but not most of them;
  • Pinellia have both male and female flowers in the same inflorescence, separated by a membrane. The spadix is fused to the back of the spathe for some distance. Arisaema are either male or female, depending on their age and growing conditions.

If you have one Pinellia, wait a season and you'll have more. They are easily propagated by offset tubers removed in autumn or early spring; seed, which should be sown as soon as it's ripe in a cold frame and left there over winter for spring germination, or given a three week cold stratification at 39°F / 4°C, then 68°F / 20°C, after which it should germinate in a few weeks. You can also plant the small bulbils that form on the junction of leaf blade and stalk in late summer.

Pinellia ternata

Of the commonly available species, Japanese native P. ternata appears to be the one most used in herbal preparations. It's also the one you want to avoid planting in your garden because it has major plans for world domination, accomplished via spreading rhizomes and dropping leaf bulbils all over the map. One source said it's theoretically capable of doubling its population in a year. It's naturalized in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, where it has made the Maryland list of invasive exotic plants.

It will grow in sun or part shade; while preferring rich, moist soil, it will grow in woodlands, forests, on grassy banks and in fields.

P. ternata, whose common name is crowdipper, has more botanical synonyms than I found for any of the other species:

  • Arisaema cochinchinense
  • Arum dracontium
  • Arum ternatum
  • Pinellia cochinchinense
  • Pinellia tuberifera
  • Pinellia wawrae

While it is offered by assorted nurseries (who ought to know better), do not turn this one loose in your garden; save your money for the better species.

Pinellia pedatisecta

Pinellia pedatisecta Foliage Of the three species I grow, P. pedatisecta, from northern and western China and Japan, is the most vigorous. It loves the bed of rotted woodchips it's in and reproduces speedily via seed. In the soft medium, it's very easy to scoop out unwanted plants. I've put a couple in less salubrious soil to see what they do there...so far it's curbed their enthusiasm a bit.

While I enjoy this species in my woodland garden, I would not recommend it for the small garden unless a watchful eye is kept on it.

The pedate leaves with seven to eleven lanceolate leaflets are quite decorative, providing good textural contrast.
pedate
Palmately divided or parted.

This is the tallest of the Pinellia species, reaching nearly fifteen inches in height (35 cm). The central leaflet is always the longest and can reach about four inches (10 cm) in length.

Pinellia pedatisecta Spathe


The inflorescence is the largest of four Pinellia species in common cultivation, reaching four to seven inches (10-18 cm) in length.

filiform
(syn. thread-like) Thread-shaped; long, slender, with a circular cross section.
The yellowish spadix is filiform and extends well past the spathe. The spathe emerges before the leaves unfold, springing up like odd little soldiers at attention.

New inflorescences are formed continuously during the growing season. Each quite capable of producing a viable seed, which is why this species is an enthusiastic spreader when in a happy location.

Fan-leaf Chinese green-dragon is the only common name I've run into for this species and it may be a rather fanciful one, dreamed up by the nursery listing it, since that's the only place I found it.

Pinellia pedatisecta tuber

This poor tuber was found laying on its side on top of the soil, the victim of one of our local squirrel digging contests, no doubt. The spathe had started to grow toward the light at an acute right angle.

You can see how the roots emerge from the top of the tuber. The blackish bits are remnants of the papery tuber covering; the brownish bits the remainder of old roots.

Safely potted up after its photo session, it's now straightening out, spath pointed skyward, as it should be.

Pinellia pedatisecta Spath Sprout

Turned upright here, you can see the spathe elongating and the unfolding leaf below it.

Pinellia pedatisecta Sprouting Leaf

We are not often given the opportunity to observe the unfolding of a leaf; we hurry past this little miracle, bent on weeding, planting or pruning and don't notice what is happening at ground level.

Nature's tidy packaging always amazes me. Whether a leaf, flower, the crosier of a fern or the emerging embryo of a seed, all the parts are there in miniature, intricately folded.

Pinellia tripartita

Pinellia tripartita
FoliageP. tripartita, from southern Japan, is much better behaved in the same bed as P. pedatisecta. It has seeded around a bit, but by no means excessively.

The distinctive, polished foliage remains pristine all season. Give it a ring-side seat so you can enjoy it.

Each leaflet can range from three to eight inches (8 - 20 cm) in length on plants that can reach eighteen inches tall (45 cm) when fully mature, but are generally closer to a foot (30cm) tall.

Pinellia tripartita Spathe

The three to four inch (8-10 cm) spath is often somewhat hidden by the foliage, unlike that of P. pedatisecta, but the spadix rises another six to ten inches (15 - 25cm) until late summer when it droops back to the ground.

There are two forms of P. tripartita that are on my lust list.

Pinellia tripartita 'Atropurpurea' differs from the species only in the marvelous purple interior spathe color.

Pinellia tripartita Pinellia tripartita 'Polly
Spout'

Pinellia tripartita 'Polly Spout' features a delicate pink spathe interior that George Schmid says, in his Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials, stands out like a pink flag.


One source notes that the main difference between P. tripartita 'Atropurpurea' and the species is Atropurpurea's "strong affinity to attracting gnats (or small flies) as pollinators, which seem to perish once entrapped in the lower chamber" of the spathe. I wonder if this is related to the red spathe interior color?

Pinellia cordata

Pinellia cordata Emerging Leaf
I just acquired P. cordata 'Yamazaki' this spring, from Ellen Hornig's Seneca Hill Perennials, as a dormant tuber.

Native to China and Korea, P. cordata is considered by many to be the best of the species in cultivation. The clone 'Yamazaki', named in honor of its originator in Japan, is said to be larger than the species with better patterned leaves.

As soon as it started to awaken, I fell in love. Two cravings - purple foliage and variegated foliage - were satisfied in one neat package.

From tiny tubers arise shiny, deep purple, tightly rolled leaves on dusky petioles. Pinellia cordata Unfolding Leaf

As the leaf unfolds, the white vein markings become visible.

Pinellia cordata Leaves

Fully open, the dark green, glossy heart-shaped leaves (hence the 'cordate' in the name) resemble some forms of Cyclamen in their markings or one of the Asian hardy gingers. The leaves reach three to five inches (8-13cm) long and about half as wide.

The relatively long leaf petioles (stems) - to eight inches (20 cm) - remain a dusky purple.

Just planted in the garden, I see that the leaves are not erect, so that the overall plant height appears closer to six inches (15cm).

Dan Hinkley, in his The Explorer's Garden notes that he has some seedlings of P. cordata with entirely green leaves. While charming, I'm sure, I want the variegation!

Pinellia cordata Leaf underside Even more exciting is the underside of the leaf - deep purple with green vein markings! Oh, be still my heart! This plant thrills me to the core.

Unfortunately, it's said to be much slower increasing than other species. I'm hoping "they" are incorrect because I can't have too much of this child. I will be looking for the leaf stem bulbils to plant on and increase stock as quickly as I can, since it is said to be reluctant to set seed in the garden.

This may not be quite as hardy as some of the species although it is being grown outside with no mulch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (zone 5b) where temperatures have reached -10°F / -23°C.

Pinellia cordata Inflorescence The tiny spathe, only about three inches in length (7-8 cm), peeks out from beneath the leaves and pops up between them.

The thread-like spadix curves out from the mouth of the spathe for almost four inches (10cm) and then points up.
Pinellia cordata Inflorescence Close-up

On one spathe on my plants, the spadix corkscrewed away from the spathe. "Cute" is an apt descriptive adjective for this tiny tot. Pinellia cordata New Spathe

 

The inflorescence is said to have an apple, pineapple or bubble gum fragrance. I can't say that I noticed anything, but often spathe scent is illusive or only lasts a few hours upon opening.

The spadix emerges from the tip of a tightly furled new spathe.

I am glad that my plants were in a pot when they first emerged. Had I planted the dormant tuber in the garden, it's likely that, in the hurly-burly of spring gardening, I would have missed seeing the foliage unfold and watching the progress of leaf growth; both fascinating processes.

Pinellia peltata Foliage

Some sources insist that P. cordata is the only species with an undivided leaf. They are wrong. Pinellia peltata has a similar leaf shape without the vein markings.

If you don't have any of the Wild, Wonderful Aroids in your shady garden, you owe it to yourself to get one (any of them but P. ternata!)...you'll be glad you did. See ya' later!

More Information

Where to find Pinellia. The following nurseries usually offer one or more selections of Pinellia species and cultivars. Check their websites for current offerings:

Image Credits

All graphics are by Marge. All photos, except the following, were taken by Marge: P. tripartita 'Atropurpurea', P. tripartita 'Polly Spout' and P. peltata are copyright Allan Galloway; used with his kind permission . Do not use these images without written permission from their owner!


 

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Last modified: October 15, 2012
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