Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Corpse Flowers and Voodoo Lilies

About 20 years ago, a gardening friend of mine, very excited and breathless, lugged a 25 gallon plastic plant container into my garden shop. The pot was full of soil and heavy. Something was trying to emerge. I don't remember exactly what he said to convince me that if I would display it my customers would get the thrill of their lives, but I conceded.

"What is it?", I asked? He pulled a wrinkled page from his pocket, spread it out on a table, and said, "It's THAT!" The picture was grainy, but the thing looked massive and strange. We placed the container in full view of the front door.

Eventually a long, thick, flesh-colored stalk mottled with dark green, black and brownish spots emerged. It looked almost human...and diseased. A big leaf unfolded. The thing was well over 6 feet tall. Very impressive!

Visitors couldn't avoid it. Most would walk around it, cautiously touch it, walk around it some more, touch it, squeeze it, and do it again. Some backed off like they were thinking, "I can't touch this!"

The plant was Amorphophallus titanum. Modest taxonomists translate "amorphophallus" to mean "without definite form." A little more accurately, the entire name means "oddly shaped phallus of enormous strength." (I blush.) It is commonly called Titan Arum or Corpse Flower.

When we think of flowers, we imagine colorful, sweet-smelling blossoms attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Right? We think of cut flowers, corsages, bouquets and nose-gays. The Corpse Flower isn't that. Carry a bouquet of it and you smell like dead meat. The flower stinks mightily.

Fortunately, the thing did not bloom in my shop. If it had, I might have had to raze the store.

Plants such as the Corpse Flower aren't pollinated by the usual birds, butterflies and bees seeking sweet nectar. They're visited by vectors (pollinating agents) that feed on dung and carrion. What a fantastic design.

Titan Arum may be the most impressive of the Araceae family, but it grows larger than most gardeners can accommodate, and is not easy to obtain. Smaller members of the family are more appropriate for most of us. Typhonium venosum is a good choice. Its name means smoky and veined. The foliage turns very dark colored and the plant certainly looks veined. It also goes by other botanical names including Sauromatum guttatum, Sauromatum venosum, Arum venosum and Arum cornutum. Its common name is Voodoo Lily, and is native to tropical Africa and Asia.

Voodoo Lily grows 24 inches to 48 inches in height. The flower, which appears in late winter or spring, looks grotesque and bulbous with a burgundy spotted spathe and a dark spadix. Yes, it does smell, but not as mightily as the Titan Arum.

For the gardener who likes unusual plants, Voodoo Lily is perfect. It can be grown outdoors, but can also be brought indoors (for awhile) as a unique design element. Though it has a tropical appearance, it is reliably hardy in USDA climate zones 9 through 11, and can be grown into zone 6 if mulched well during winter. Plant it in partial shade to full shade in loamy soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5. To determine if your soil pH is hospitable to Voodoo Lily, take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service office for testing.

Cultivate the soil to 12 inches deep and remove all traces of weeds. Incorporate fertilizer or soil amendments according to Extension Service recommendations. Space the plants 6 inches to 10 inches apart, and three times as deep as the corm-like rhizome is wide. Planting depth is measured to the bottom of the hole. Water well when planting, but allow the soil to dry between watering.

Voodoo Lily is certainly a curiosity, and for that reason you should grow it. It's not difficult. Gardeners who enjoy growing plants of medicinal interest should also be interested for Typhonium is used in Chinese medicine. Keep in mind, however, that self-treatment is not recommended for Typhonium can be toxic if ingested and may cause allergic reactions in sensitive persons.

A planting of Voodoo Lily will certainly intrigue your friends and give you something to proudly show.

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1 comment:

abby jenkins said...

To our surprise we just found some Arum Cornutum, bareroot at Home Depot! 3 for 6.98. We bought 15 of them and can't wait to start a colony behind our barn. Add to our "Dr. Seuss" collection or hidden treasures!

Don't think I will be clambering for any corpse flowers anytime soon....those are a little too strange even for us.