Himalayan cobra lily, Arisaema consanguineum, is mysterious, brooding, lovely.
It’s tall, Himalayan cobra lily, sending up leaf stalks up to six feet tall they say. I’ve only seen it growing to perhaps three or four feet. The entire plant is striking. A strong stem supports a whorl of leaflets that combine to form one radiatisect (umbrella-like) leaf. The flower unfurls so dramatically I have to be careful not to stray into hyperbole in describing it. The photographs do a better job of communicating the striking visual impact of Himalayan cobra lily than I ever could.
Arisaema consanguineum is native to Asia, specifically northern India, the Himalayan Mountains, and southern China. Himalayan cobra lily naturally occurs at mountain elevations but is also found in lowlands.
The first time I saw Himalayan cobra lily in a woodland garden my wife Angela pointed it out. I actually took a step back. Had I entered the world of Lara Croft? It was so wild, so foreign, so beautiful. Yet, familiar. The flower reminded me of something, but what?
The genus name gave it away. We have our own Arisaema in North America, Arisaema triphyllum, the much-beloved jack-in-the-pulpit.
Himalayan cobra lily is just one of many Arisaema
There are at least 190 known species of Arisaema, with the largest concentration found in China and Japan. Of these 175 species, only two are native to North America, Arisaema dracontium, and Arisaema triphyllum. It is one of the great wonders of our natural world, the way similar species can be found on separate continents, separated by thousands of miles of ocean. How can this be?
As the New York Botanical Garden explains, the theory centers on continental drift. What is now Asia and North America was once one unified landmass called Pangaea. Millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic era, the landmass split and began to drift apart. The plants of Asia and North America continued to evolve over time. Still, Himalayan cobra lily is just one of over 190 species of Arisaema found in Asia, whereas there are only two species in America. Why?
It has to do with the last ice age. North America was colder than much of eastern Asia, parts of which remained ice-free. The result was a greater diversity of flora in Asia. I think many gardeners have wondered why there are azaleas native to both the United States and Japan. Herein lies the answer.
How can we establish that Himalayan cobra lily and jack-in-the-pulpit are the same genus? Botanists of preceding centuries did a remarkable job connecting species, but today scientists have modern tools such as DNA sequencing to determine genetic relationships.
The flowers of Himalayan cobra lily have two parts
Each flower has a spadix and a spathe. The spathe is the hood that protects the spadix emerging from within. It is likely the spathe evolved to protect the pollen. Plants have developed all kinds of ingenious methods of keeping pollen safe, including flowers that close during the night.
Heat also plays a part with many plants that have spathes. The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, with its gigantic inflorescence reaching up to 10 feet in height, has a spathe. Spathes help some species raise the temperature of the air in the immediate vicinity, thus magnifying the scents meant to draw in pollinators. In the case of the corpse flower, the ‘rotting meat’ smell attracts the carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it.
Each stalk will produce only one or two leaves. Red berries follow flowering. It is highly variable from seed, so if you do get more plants via reseeding don’t be suprised if the flowers and stems look different than the original.
Himalayan cobra lily in the garden
Arisaema consanguineum likes shade and loose, rich soil that is well-drained. Arisaema native to North America can handle poorly-drained soils, but in general, if you plant Himalayan cobra lily or any of the Arisaema species from Asia, ensure the soil is well drained. Himalayan cobra lily has a reputation of being one of the easiest to grow Arisaema by the way. It also blooms the first year after planting.
I’ve only seen it growing in shade, although I’ve read it can handle full sun. In the Deep South, I wouldn’t risk it. Frankly, it looks like a plant of the forest.
The stems are strong and should not need staking. From an aesthetic viewpoint, staking Himalayan cobra lily would be a misstep. Himalayan cobra lily has excellent winter hardiness. It looks so tropical but it’s tough.
Regarding its tropical look, I think this particular cultivar looks great in woodland gardens. Normally, I’m not a fan of plants that look out of place, but Himalayan cobra lily seems like an over-sized slightly more aggressive version of the jack-in-the-pulpit many North American gardeners are accustomed to.
Resist the urge to plant it alone as a specimen. Because the plant is so tall, it can rise above the canopy of shorter-growing perennial companions. Intersperse it among ferns or lower-growing native perennials.
Winter hardiness zones: 5-11
Arisaema species, including Himalayan cobra lily and the native jack-in-the-pulpit, can be highly toxic.
In Asia, the leaves are often boiled and eaten, while the roots are used to treat epilepsy and coughs in traditional eastern medicine. However, calcium oxalate crystals will cause severe pain in the mouth and throat if eaten raw. Do not plant around animals or small children.
Many of plants I write about have been in my life for years. With regards to the mysteries of Arisaema consanguineum and corpse flower, I am indebted to the following:
New York Botanical Garden – Geographic Diversity in the Azalea Garden: Arisaema, Disporum, and Podophyllum, Sonia Uyterhoeven
Wiley Online Library – The Evolution of Pollinator-Plant Interaction Types in the Araceae, Marion Chartier, Marc Gibernau, Susanne S. Renner
The New Yorker – Eight Days of the Corpse Flower: A Diary, Elif Batuman
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens – Arisaema consanguineum Schott
Native Distribution of Arisaema consanguineum species and subspecies:
|Genus/species||Arisaema consanguineum – note: there are a number of subspecies|
|Common name(s)||Himalayan Cobra Lily|
|Of note||highly toxic, do not plant around animals or small children – guaranteed to get attention from even the most worldly gardeners – rich, well-drained soil – no hot sun – sprouts late so be patient|
|Soil quality||rich, well-drained|
|Suggested use(s)||cottage gardens, mixed borders/perennial beds, shade gardens|
|Hardiness zone(s)||5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b|
|Deciduous or evergreen||deciduous|
|Flower color||green, red, white|