A voodoo lily

A voodoo lily, as seen here, is probably one of the strangest plants that you'll ever see growing in a garden. 

Are you afraid to grow a voodoo lily? At this time of spooky, creepy, things that go bump in the night it just seems fitting to talk about voodoo lilies.

I had never even heard of a voodoo lily until a friend at a local greenhouse gave me a tuber to try. So of course I had to research this odd little tuber that I held in my hand and find out more about it. Wow! Was I in for a surprise!

I discovered the lily is also referred to as devil’s tongue, corpse flower, or the carrion plant. So far this isn’t sounding like something most of us want in our gardens. And it gets worse from here, but don’t wrinkle your nose at it quite yet. It really is a different yet amazing plant.

First, you should know that there are about 170 species of voodoo lilies amorphophallus. They’re actually considered a tropical plant. Some, such as Amorphophallus titanum can become enormous reaching a height of about 6 to 8 feet tall, but it sounds like very few people ever get this monster to bloom. The titanum is said to be the largest flower in the world and looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Some voodoo plants only grow a few inches tall so it would be a good idea to know what you’re getting before you buy one.

What really makes this plant bizarre is the odor that it produces when the bloom first appears. As you probably guessed, the nickname corpse flower or carrion plant rightly describes this plant because of the offensive odor that it produces. The good news is, the odor only lasts a day or less. Needless to say, they recommend planting it away from the entrance to a building. Because of the unusual odor of death, this strange plant attracts flies. I’m not sure I like that! It’s a good thing that the “fragrance” doesn’t last long! Unlike most sweet-smelling flowers that are pollinated by butterflies and bees, the voodoo plants are pollinated by flies or some other type of carrion feeding insects so that’s the reason for the foul odor. They say you can grow these plants as houseplants, but unless you’re a member of the Addams Family I can’t imagine having it indoors when it first blooms. I’ve read that some varieties don’t have the offensive odor but I’m still not sure about growing them in the house.

So the question begs to be asked. Why would anyone in their right mind plant such a putrid smelling plant? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m willing to put up with a little odor and the inconvenience of a few flies to experience the show-stopping unique bloom of this unusual plant. Or maybe I’m not in my right mind and that’s why the tuber was given to me? Anyway, the name amorphophallus comes from the Latin word amorpho meaning deformed, referring to the flower, but the flowers don’t look the same on all of the varieties.

All of the voodoo lilies have unique deer resistant foliage, but like the flower, not all of them look alike. I like the photos of Amorphophallus henry ‘O’ Henry’. It has dense, pretty foliage with pointed leaflets and pink edges. I’m thinking I may also need to try a devil’s tongue Dracunculus vulgaris just because of the wicked name. I’m so anxious to see what my plant is going to look like!

After flowering, the tuber will need to rest for at least a month. So remove the bloom when it fades but allow the foliage to remain on the plant until it withers. (This sounds a lot like the same care we give our daffodils and tulips.) After a good nap, it will produce extraordinary palmate leaves and a highly patterned “petiole” or what would be considered a trunk. Most of these trunks are colorful with pink and dark spots. I read that some voodoo lilies may occasionally take an entire year before producing, so don’t give up on it.

These plants are native to subtropical areas of eastern Asia, including Vietnam, Japan, and China south to Indonesia, so most are not very winter hardy and the bulb should be dug in the fall after the foliage has died. Keep the tuber stored in peat moss in a cool dry location. It’s recommended that you wait until spring to separate any small new tubers from the parent and replanted them in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. Plant the tuber so that its top is at least 4 - 6 inches below the soil surface and wait for the show. A few select plants must remain potted, so check this out when you purchase them. Because Amorphophallus are native to warm tropical regions, they should ideally be planted in good soil and protected from strong winds. They say the plant doesn’t require a lot of supplemental watering and never needs fertilizing.

Here’s an interesting fact. The starchy tubers are edible and this plant is grown for food in some parts of the world. It’s processed into a tasteless flour or stiff jelly (which can be used as a vegan substitute for gelatin). The Japanese use konjac flour to make shirataki noodles, and the starch is used to make a popular Asian fruit jelly snack.

So if you’ve decided that a plant that attracts flies and repels people is the perfect plant for you, you can find the tubers online anywhere from about $7to almost $100. The larger the tubers, the larger the flowers, and the longer they will keep their foliage into the season. Just think of the stories your friends, neighbors, and grandkids will have to tell about your gardening skills. Have an odorriffic Halloween!

Linda Corwine McIntosh is a Certified Arborist, Advanced Master Gardener, and Commercial Pesticide Applicator.

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