Sunday, January 23, 2011

The unusual friar's cowl

Friar's Cowl (Arisarum vulgare)
The friar’s cowl is an unusual plant found throughout the Mediterranean region.

 I am sure that whoever gave it its name in English was a religious person who got his inspiration from the monks and friars’ habit. In Maltese this plant is called garni tal-pipi which can be translated as smoking pipes’ arum.

It is a member of the arum family. Other members of this family include the Italian lord and ladies (garni) a common species that flowers in early spring.

The friar’s cowl is a perennial that is it can live for more than one year although during the summer months it can be found only as an underground tuberous rhizome. 

In autumn the rhizome grows new leaves and a short while later a flower appears above the surrounding vegetation. The flower is brown with a curved tongue-like structure growing out of it. The flower is surrounded by a tubular leave whose top part is shaped like a hood.

 This is the part we normally see. This leave has many dark spots that resemble ants. It is believed that these are a part of the defence system of the plant as it is a form of visual insect mimicry that serves as an herbivore repellent. This structure is so unusual and beautiful that I do not tire of taking pictures of it.

The friar’s cowl flowers throughout autumn and winter. 

In North Africa the rhizomes are used as food. Before being eaten the rhizomes must be washed in copious amounts of water to remove needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate which produce pain when they come in contact with the lips, tongue or skin. Cooking can also remove the effect of these crystals. It is also claimed that parts of the plant can are used to treat ear and spleen tumours.

This article was published in The Times on 24.11.10

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