by Stephen Mifsud
   15 Jul 2024      ()
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Arisarum vulgare   (Friar's Cowl)

Arisarum vulgare  (ARACEAE.) 
Images for this profile are taken from the Maltese Islands after year 2000.

Contents Links   (Detailed Profile)

Nomenclature Morphology
Plant Description and Characters Plant Information and Uses
Species Images External Links
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Araceae spp. Index Plant Family Index
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Profile Date Dec-2003 (taxon update: Nov-2010)
Citation for this page Mifsud, S. (2022). Arisarum vulgare - datasheet created on Dec-2003. Retrieved from on 15-Jul-2024


Species name :

Arisarum vulgare  O.Targ.Tozz.

Authority :

Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, Italy, (1712 - 1783)

Synonyms :
(basionym or principal syn.)

Arum arisarum L.
Full list of synonyms : [Euro+Med] [PlantList] [IPNI] [POWO] [Catalogue of Life] []

Plant Family :

Araceae  Juss.
(Arum Family)

English name(s) :

Friar's Cowl, Arison

Maltese name(s) :

Garni tal-Pipa

Status for Malta :

Indigenous. Present on the Maltese islands before man

Name Derivation :

Arisarum: Name given by Dioscorides (40 - 90 AD) for peculiar plants with pitcher-like flowers. (Greek origin ); 2 = Name first given by Dioschorides for A. vulgare; (Greek).
vulgare: common and widespread, at least when this plant was described. (Latin origin ); 2 = Common or ordinary, since it is found in abundant numbers. (Latin).

Remarks :

Morphology and structure



Growth Form





Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)








Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)


Leaf Shape

Leaf Margin




Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)




Basic Flower Type

No. of Petals

No. of Sepals


Maroon (or sometimes Green)




  Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)







The spathe is tubular and curved to one side and has a broad opening from which a club shaped structure - the spadix or spike - protrudes. The colour of the upper part of the spathe is purple-brown which gradually turns to a pattern of longitudinal stripes and tiny spots towards its base. The true flowers are deep inside the lower part of the spadix.


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)



Average Flower Size

Pollen Colour

Other Notes



FLower gives an unpleasant smell.

45 mm x 18mm

Length of spathe x Diameter.

Pale Yellow


Note that most of the given botanical data of the flower refers to the general conspicuous spathe. The true flowers are inconspicuous and hidden at the base of the spadix.



No. Per Fruit






Usually 4 seeds per fruit capsule.

Irregular and swollen

Cylindrical base with a swollen body and a tiny pointed apex. Each seed has numerous longitudinal ridges.

4mm x 3mm

Length x Width.

Pale Brown


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)



Fruit Type

Colour of Fruit

Subterranean Parts

Other Notes


Dark green

(Sometimes flushed or striped in purple).



Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)

Plant description and characters

Life Cycle:


Growth Form:

GEOPHYTE (bearing underground bulbs, rhizomes, stolons, etc.)


Mostly present in maquis and sheltered rocky areas but can also be found in high garigue, abandoned fields, disturbed ground with dumped soil and wooded areas. Prefers mostly partial shade and moist soil but can thrive in exposed rocky ground


Very Common

Localities in Malta:

Very Common everywhere. Plenty at Buskett woodland, many valleys (eg Wied il-Ghasel), Chadwick Lakes, and abandoned fields in Gozo.

Plant Height:


Flowering Period:


Protection in Malta:

Not legally protected till the last update of this website (2/Mar/2022)

Red List 1989:

Not listed in the Red Data Book of the Maltese Islands


This perennial monocot have a peculiar appearance due to its distinctive pulpit-shaped flower, a characteristic of the ARACEAE family that Arisarum vulgare belongs to. The plant grows from an underground tuberous rhizome - a creeping underground stem which give rise to several leaves and flowers in Autumn and Winter. Since the underground stem lives all year round, the plant is described as perennial, but actually, during the hottest period of the year (late Spring and Summer), there are no aerial leaves or flowers left.

Every leaf and flower is supported by a single, unbranched, glabrous stalk that grows directly from the underground tuber. The flower stalks, have purple-brown spots or small longitudinal streaks, especially at the lower part. These turn gradually to green up the stalk. Leaf stalks are usually green spotted. The length of the stalk varies, depending light conditions, soil depth or/and competitive vegetation, but usually grow between 8cm up to 25cm high.

Every stalk support a single, glabrous, dark-green leaf about 8cm to 18cm long and 6cm-8cm wide. Sizes vary considerably according to environmental conditions. The leaves have a general oval shape but their base ends with two conspicuous auricles (lobes) which can be found either rounded (forming a heart-shaped leaf base) or sometimes pointed (forming an arrow-shaped leaf base).

The complex flower consists of a tubular shaped structure - the spathe - with a broad opening from which a club shaped structure, the spadix or spike protrudes out. The spathe is botanically defined as a modified bract enclosing the flowering spike or spadix inside. The colour of the upper part of the spathe is completely purple-brown which gradually turns to an interesting pattern with longitudinal stripes, speckles and spots towards its base. Some flowers seems to lack this pigmentation forming green patterns instead.

The spadix outer part is generally brown, light brown or sometimes green, but its colour fades away down the interior of the spathe. The lower part inside bears the true flowers, with the male flowers separated from the female flowers benneath. The male flowers are small (1-2mm) C-shaped, pale-yellow sacs which produce large amounts of pollen. They are subtended out from the spadix by a short sturdy supporting structure. Numerous male flowers are found all around the spadix perimeter. On the other hand, there are only about 10 female flowers embedded at the base of the spike below the male flowers, and lying at one side of the spadix perimeter. They are roundish small structures (2-3mm), usually with dark-purple stripes and a short snout-like style and stigma at the tip.

The fruit of these plants are green, stout, cylindrical, barrel-shaped berries. About 4-12 fruit per stalk are produced. The stalk of berries tend to fall horizontally to the ground and so becomes hidden by the foliage of other plants. Each berry holds between 2-6 pale brown seeds (usually 4) which on a closer examination, they have numerous parallel longitudinal ridges. No seed dispersal mechanisim is known.

Information, uses and other details

Origin, Distribution and Ecology

The plant have originated and is native to the Mediterranean region   [WWW-27] The distibution of the species is reported in the following countries:  [WWW-191] Albania, Algeria, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France (incl. Corsica), Greece (incl. Crete), Israel, Italy (incl. Sardinia, Sicily), Lebanon, Libya, Macedonia, Malta, Morocco, Portugal (incl. Azores), Serbia, Slovenia, Spain (incl. Balearics, Canary Is.), Syria, Tunisia, Turkey.

The species is a geophyte which grows in warm temperate scrub and woodland; on stony ground in maquis, between rocks or under trees and shrubs.  [WWW-191] In Malta it can extend in ruderal areas, disturbed places and abandoned fields and is a common wild plant.  [SM]

Cultivation details

Prefers a woodland soil or a sandy loam with leaf mould  [1] . Grows well in shady rather moist places  [1] .

A Mediterranean plant, it commences growth in the autumn and, since the leaves are not very hardy, the plant is best grown under protection  [90] . It should succeed outdoors at least in the milder parts of the country, if grown in a sheltered woodland. The plant is hardy to about -10 Celcius for short periods but should be given a good mulch in the winter  [200] . The plant becomes dormant in spring/summer  [200] .

Edible Uses

Root - cooked. The acrid juice should first be removed by thorough and repeated washing leaving behind a nutritious and innoxious residue  [2, 105, 177] . Thorough drying or cooking will also destroy any harmful elements of this root   [KF] . The root is frequently used as an emergency food in times of scarcity, it is about the size of a walnut  [2] . This root is consumed in North Africa during seasons of food scarcity

One report suggests that the leaves might be edible  [177] . If they are they must be well cooked first   [KF] . The rhizomes of many species of the Araceae, contain a large quantity of starch and are used as food after suitable preparation.   [WWW-27]

Medicinal Uses

Various documents state that this plant has been used as a medicinal plant long time ago, but I did not find any details for what is was used for. Also, the plant is poisonous and so it has limited medicinal uses.   [SM]

Other Uses

A good ground-cover plant for a shady place   [1]

Poison Effects

Many plants in the Araceae family contain a poisonous watery juice which may be rendered non-toxic by heat.   [WWW-27] Most species, including the Arisarum vulgare   [KF] , contain bundles of minute needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate (known as raphides) which are responsible at least in part for the irritant properties of these plants when they are damaged and brought into contact with the skin or mucous membranes. The presence of other irritant compounds is also suspected.   [WWW-27] . The plant's calcium oxalate crystals cause an extremely unpleasant sensation similar to needles being stuck into the mouth and tongue if they are eaten but they are easily neutralised by thoroughly drying or cooking the plant or by steeping it in water   [KF] ,   [65] .

The irritant effects of the Arisarum vulgare have been known for centuries. Ramazzini's account of genital dermatitis in an apothecary appears to have been plagiarised from Dioscorides   [WWW-27]

An online abstract from a study performed by Rakba N et al reveals how certain alkaloid from the plants' tubers are toxic to human liver cells.  [297] . The abstract reads:

" Toxicity of B-Gugaine, a pyrrolidine alkaloid extracted from the tubers of Arisarum vulgare, was studied in three different liver cell culture models:
(1) the rat hepatocyte primary culture;
(2) a liver epithelial cell line; and
(3) the human hepatoblastoma cell line HepG2.

Cytotoxicity was evaluated by LDH release, MTT reduction and MDA production. DNA fragmentation was analysed by flow cytometry or DNA gel-electrophoresis. In hepatocyte and epithelial cell cultures, drug toxicity appeared at 30 microM and was evaluated by an increase in LDH release, a decrease in MTT reduction and a higher level of MDA production. b-Gugaine concentrations lower than 30 microM did not induce changes in these parameters. In HepG2 cells, b-Gugaine treatment also induced LDH release at concentrations of 40 and 50 microM. DNA fragmentation, analysed in the HepG2 cell line by flow cytometry, was observed in cultures exposed to 50 microM b-Gugaine. However, using DNA gel-electrophoresis, we demonstrated that lower b-Gugaine concentrations (10, 20 and 30 microM) also induced DNA damage. Our results show that: (1)b-Gugainee induces an important hepatotoxicity; (2)hematologic toxicity is not mediated by a metabolic derivative; and hematologic b-Gugaine induces a significant DNA damage. Therefore, our data suggest that the a hematologic b-Gugaine contained in Arisarum vulgare may be involved in the toxicologic symptoms observed after consumption of this plant tubers by humans and animals."   [297]

Another abstract, this time from M. Lamkadem et al   [298] proves the cytotoxicity and the electrophysiological effects against MRC-5 fibroblasts of 2 alkaloids extracted from the plant. Their abstract says:

" The cytotoxicity and the electrophysiological effects against MRC-5 fibroblasts of 2-alkylpyrrolidine, (-)-R-b-gugaine   [1] , a natural alkaloid, extracted from Arisarum vulgare Targ., (Araceae) were studied. This compound showed a cytotoxic potential against MRC-5 fibroblasts at 10 ug/ml. The electrophysiological study of this molecule on MRC-5 cells was carried out using the technique of patch-clamp and showed that (-)-R-b-gugaine   [1] has a sub-maximum effect on the outward potassium (current) at the concentration of 1 um (0.281 ug/ml). In this study we show that R-b-gugaine   [1] activates the outwards potassium (current) activated by intracellular calcium. "  [298]

Chemical composition of Plant

Inorganic composition in parts per million:
N = 9,700
P = 1390
Na = 1,380
K = 12,300
Ca = 3.380
Mg = 1,750
Cu = 5.2
Fe = 79.6
Mn = 7.1
B = 7.9
Al = 19.8
Si = 179.0
Ti = 1.7
Sr = 179.0
Ba = 6.1
Sn = 4.7
Pb = 16.8        [WWW-33]

Other species of Arisarum

Arisarum proboscideum L. differs from Arisarum vulgare in having its mouth enclosed in a long tapering end (like a tail of a mouse). Distribution: SW. Spain, C. & S. Italy.  [WWW-191]
Arisarum simorrhinum Durand is closely related to A. vulgare but this forms flowers below the level of leaves, have stouter spathes, and the spadix terminates in a swollen - club-shaped structure. Distribution: Canary Islands, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco.  [WWW-191]


Several species of the Araceae family have a special pollination mechanism. The flower emits a particular perfume or scent to lure the pollinator insect. This includes stinking scents to attract flies. Several species of this family, for example the Cryptocoryne spp. have a valve at the neck of the spathe tube which traps inside the visiting insect at the base, where the flower sex organs are located. Pollination is hence carried out during the insect struggle to escape. Usually it dies in the flower as escape is impossible.

However, in the case of Arisarum vulgare, there is no trapping valve inside the spathe, and hence pollination seems to be more 'firendly' and any unspecific insect visiting the flower (for example for shelter or moisture) can pollinate freely the flowers. Moreover, this species does not have any strong or particular scent. It is never visited by bees and wasps, since it lacks nectar or any kind of reward.

Personal Observations

Green flowers and maroon flowers
The species produces flowers in two colours, maroon (the most common) and completely green. Intermediates with pale brown, or seldom dirty-orange colours can be met. While on one hand, the green variety can be considerd as an albino per se (lack of the brown pigmentation resulting in green) it seems that the tendancy is that the green flowering variety is frequently found in plants that are completely in the shade, although no scientific proof has been found on this observation.

Links & Further literature (0 papers)

Google Web

Google Images

Google Scholar

Research Gate




Med Checklist

Cat. of Life



World Flora Online

Plants of the World Online

Vienna Virt. Herb.

RBGE Herbarium

KEW Herbarium




Kindly Email if there are papers and publications about local studies or information about this species to be included in the list above.

Photo Gallery   (41 Images)

Flowers and leaves of plant in situ. Note how the invading species Oxalis pes-caprae is overgrowing the plant.
Tubular shaped flowers and heart-shaped leaves of plant.
Close up photo of flower and leaf of the plant.
Close up photo of flower in situ (side view). The flower structure is complexly pigmented in dark brown-purple with various symmetrical, longitudinal stripes and spots.
The exterior colourful part of the flower is a specialized sheath or bract called spathe which has a pigmented tubular structure. The true flowers are small structures inside the spathe.
Large close up image of flower in situ.
Photo of bud, having a tapering structure at the tip.
Close up photo of flower (front view). The flower really resembles the friar's cowl (= brown garment worn by friars which covered their head).
Some flowers are pigmented green instead of brown-purple. Such specimens seem to lack the brown pigmentation.
Photo of flower which appears in the wild in mid November.
Another photo of the flower of Arisarum vulgare .
Magnified scanned image of flower (lateral view of flower).
Magnified scanned image of flower (front view of flower).
Magnified scanned image of flower (back part of flower).
A flower and a large leaf of plant.
Dissected flower revealing its interior parts. The club shaped structure is called the spadix (or spike) and the specialised sheath forming a tube like structure is called the spathe. The true male and female flowers are found down the spike.
Scanned image of spadix with the spathe dissected out. The pale yellow flowers are the male-reproductive organs. The female flowers, further down the spadix are not seen in this photo.
Close up scanned image of the spadix apex. This has no reproductive functions for the flower, unlike many who may think that it is the flower's stigma+style.
Close up image of the male flowers. They are just pollen sacks attached to the spike by a thick support structure. They produce pollen in large quantity.
Close up image of the true flowers of the plant attached to the spike. The female fowers are dark coloured and found at the very base of the spike, located at a one side, while the male flowers are pale yellow, lie above the female flowers and arranged around all the spike.
Close up image of the female flowers, which are much less in number from male flowers. They have a slightly swollen stigma, a short style and a spherical ovary embedded in the very base of the spike.
Photo of stem of flower in situ.
Scanned image of stalks. The one on the left is a leaf stalk, and the other a flower stalk. The latter has more pronounced purple brown streaks and spots.
Image of large leaves in situ. Leaves may grow up to 18cm long, especially if they are located in the shade.
Photo of the some pale leaves of this species showing the pattern of venation. Note the interesting venation running close and along the margin of the leaf.
Scanned image of leaf. They are approximately oval in shape with rounded heart-shaped or pointed-arrow shaped lobes at the base. The network of parallel veins is also quite attractive.
Scanned image of whole plant including roots and part of the rhizome (taken by Herbaria virtual. - Universitat illes Balears).
Photo of seedling, consisting of just one leaf (monocotyledons).
Close up photo of fruit. This is the bright green type. usually the fruit is dark green with maroon tops.
Cluster of barrel-shaped unripe fruit.
Photo of fruit which ripens in Spring.
Scanned image of fruit at various stages of growth. The fruit are glabrous closed bell shaped berries, about 4 - 12 per flower.
Magnified scanned image of the green type and maroon type berries. It is evident that the "green type" berry is green because the plant lacks the maroon pigment. The corresponding stalk also lacks that pigment.
Undeveloped white seeds inside the unripe berries.
Almost ripe seeds attaining a light brown color in the fruit.
Magnified image under microscope of the male flower - a kidney shaped pollen sac.
Microscopic image of female flowers consisting of a spherical and striped ovary, a short necked style and a stigma with many finger-like projections to which pollen may get entrapped and hence can perform the fertilisation process.
Magnified image of pollen under light microscope. They are stout rods with curved ends and striped outer texture.
Magnified image under microscope of the purple-brown spots found on the flower stalks.
Scanned image of the seeds. They are pale brown, have a swollen body with a small pointed tip at the apex and numerous longitudinal ridges.
Close up image of few seeds. Note the longitudinal ridges.

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