This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stemless; leaves glaucous, hastate-cordate, acumin; the lobes oblong, obtuse; spathe hooded at the summit, oval-lanceolate, white, longer than the spadix; root tuberous; petioles twelve to fifteen inches long; leaves five to seven inches long, the lobes somewhat spreading and generally obtuse; scape as long the petioles. (See Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States )
ERY few persons who go out to gather wild flowers will return with the subject of the present sketch, for it is one of the scarcest of our native plants. The writer has never met with it in a wild condition, and the drawing" was made from a specimen kindly furnished by Prof. C. S. Sargent, of the Cambridge Botanical Garden, Massachusetts. Dr. Chapman, whose description is here adopted, gives only two localities, Savannah, Ga., on the authority of Elliott, who was the author of an early botany of South Carolina; and Wilmington, N. C, on the authority of Dr. Curtis. It is scarcely likely to be confined to these two places; but if any other botanist has collected it elsewhere, it is in no list at our command. It is not at all unlikely to be found in Florida, and perhaps many other places South; for these districts have not yet been very well explored botanically. But however that may be, Xanthosoma sagittifolia is certainly not a plant which had its home originally in the United States, though it may have been on our soil for countless ages. It is more probable, on the contrary, that it is a wanderer far away from the original centre of its primeval being. It is very abundant in the West India Islands, which, in almost all European botanical works, are mentioned as its only place of nativity; while it is but rarely thought of by any European writer in connection with the United States. It is also believed to be a native of China, where it is extensively cultivated.
Our plant is quite closely allied to a very common garden plant, - Caladium esculentum, - the "Tanyah" of the Southern States; and the tuberous roots of both are of equal value. In a raw state, the roots of Xanthosoma, like those of most of the Araceae, are extremely acrid, and blister the mouth when brought into contact with it; but this acridity is driven out by heat, and when the roots are cooked, they are very mealy and agreeable, and said to be almost precisely like those of Caladium. In China, we are told, the leaves also are used, cut and boiled like our spinach, and they are said to be an excellent vegetable when prepared in this way. It may be well to observe, for the benefit of those who may desire to cultivate the plant in our country for culinary purposes, that, judging by its probable central home, it is not likely to endure any frost; but the roots can, no doubt, be preserved in the winter in any dry place where the thermometer does not fall much below forty-five degrees, although, like the Caladium, it seems naturally to be at home in wet, marshy, or springy places.
To most of our readers, however, the edibility of our plant will be but an incident. Its chief interest will be in its beauty, and the botanical lessons which it affords. The resemblance between it and the common Calla Lily, Richardia AEthiopica, of our gardens, is seen at a glance, and it gives the general appearance of being something between that and the Caladium before referred to. The last named has the flowers low down, scarcely rising above the bulb; while the Calla Lily sends them above the leaves. Our plant has them about of equal height with the leaves, nearly in the position shown in the plate. The shape of the leaves, and at the first glance also the flowers, remind us strongly of our common garden plant. Indeed, the differences in most of the genera of Araceae are founded on characters that relate to sexual peculiarities, and are open to about the same objections as the sexual system of Linnaeus, which prevailed before the present natural system of botany was introduced. Under the old sexual system our plant would have been associated with an Orchid, or with, perhaps, even a Papaw (Asimina triloba), all on account of the peculiar relations of stamens with pistils. Now those plants which are alike in general characters are brought together, and the order which results - Aracece or the Arum family in this case - is a very natural-looking one, which the youngest student can scarcely fail to recognize; but when we come to divide the order into genera, we have still to take into consideration the sexual relations; and the result is that we can hardly tell, when we examine a plant of the order, in which genus to place it. The spadix - the central body - has the flowers variously arranged over its surface, and this is regarded as a matter of great importance in determining the genus. In some the spadix is quite naked at its end; in others it is clothed, generally to the apex, and here we find one great difference between the Calla Lily and our plant, for the latter would be placed in the first section, while the Calla belongs to the last. The differences in structure, and the relations of the anther with the connective, are also taken into consideration in determining the genera. In one great division, in which we find the true Arums and our Indian Turnip, the cells of the anthers are larger than the connective; in another in which our plant is found, they have a very thick connective; while in the section which contains the Richardia, they are embedded in the connective, which is very thick and fleshy. We see by this that plants, which must be closely allied from their natural appearances, are still almost as widely separated as when we were under the sway of the very defective sexual system. It thus happens that plants of the order Araceee are given various names, according to the different views which botanists take of the value of characters. The botanists of the past age would have called our plant an Arum. In the earlier part of the present century, it was regarded as a Caladium. and Nuttall refers to it in 1818 as Caladium sagitti-folium. Rafinesque, about Nuttall's time, placed it in his genus Pcltaudra. Schott, in his revision of Araceae in 1832, created the separate genus Xanthosma; and although this is not accepted by some of the best German botanists, who still regard several of Schott's genera as identical with Caladium, the division seems to be recognized by American botanists as a sound one, and we have followed their judgment accordingly.
There is a difference among authors as to the orthography. Some have it Xanthosma, and others Xauthosoma, - Greek words, the first meaning "yellow odor," and the second "yellow body"; but the first is unintelligible, and the application of the last not apparent. Dr. Chapman has Xauthosoma in the body of his work, and Xanthcsmia ("yellow banner") in the index. However, we must leave this question to the linguists to decide, and shall adopt Xauthosoma as the name most in favor with our people. Sagittifolia is from the resemblance of the leaves to an arrow-head.
The species seems to have no generally recognized common name, but its local name in North Carolina, according to a communication from Dr. Thos. F. Wood, of Wilmington, in that State, is Arrow-leaved Spoonflower. The same English appellation, Spoonflower, was also adopted for the genus by Dr. Curtis, late State botanist of North Carolina, in his " Catalogue of Indigenous Plants."
We have already noted that the plant is used as a vegetable. Dr. Lindley tells us that a starchy substance, called "chou caraib" in the country where it is extracted, is prepared from the roots.
1. Expanded spathe, showing the male flowers in the centre of the spadix.
2. Scape, with faded spathe.
3. The same, with portion of the spathe cut away to show the position of the immature fruit on the spadix.