The voodoo lily

By Ralph E. Mitchell

You may smell the voodoo lily before you see it – and not in a good way!  This unique flowering perennial can be grown in our area almost carefree.  From highly exotic flowers that perhaps only a mother could love, to four-foot tall mottled, palm-tree-like leaf stalk, the voodoo lily is a true collectors’ plant and a conversation piece.  Why is this plant such an oddity?

The first time I saw a sizable collection of voodoo lilies or Amorphophallus was at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville.  They were in the umbrella-like foliage stage without flowers, but I was impressed with the otherworldly nature of foliage.  I also grew one species – A. konjac – from a tuber.  But I know of a gardener with a sizable collection that came with her property’s landscape as an extra bonus.  The prominent species in this landscape is A. paeonifolius.  This type of voodoo lily starts in the spring with the emergence of a dinnerplate-sized almost cabbage-like maroon flower composed of a broad spathe topped with a wrinkled spadix.  It is one of the oddest flowers you will ever see!  This unusual apparition can only be topped by its odor which is known to attract flies – its pollinating partner.  The stink occurs at sunrise or sunset for just a brief period of time.  This ogre of a flower is followed by a single stalk of foliage which looks like a short, palm-like umbrella with an attractive gray and greenish mottled stem giving this plant its other common name, “snake palm.”  This stem will only last through fall, and then fades away, as the plant goes dormant.

There are about one-hundred and seventy species of Amorphophallus found throughout tropical and subtropical southeast Asia.   In addition to A. paeonifolius, you can also find Amorphophallus konjac available for sale with a pinkish maroon jack-in-the-pulpit-like flower with an equally offensive odor.  A. bulbifer may also be commercially available via mail-order on-line sources.  This voodoo lily has a smaller pink flower with a green specked spathe.  This species actually develops tubers on the leaves which can be used to propagate new plants.  All of the above mentioned Amorphophallus are available as tubers which should be planted in a part-shade to a light shaded area rich in organic matter, but well-drained – especially in the dormant dry season.  Amorphophallus can also be grown as a container plant.  A grapefruit-sized tuber has the capacity to produce one flower.  Mature tubers of some Amorphophallus can become huge – up to fifty pounds and twelve inches across!

To experience the ultimate in Amorphophallus, you have to see Amorphophallus titanum  or the titan arum.  It holds the record as the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world!  The flower can be ten feet tall and has a powerful odor like its other relatives earning itself the name of “corpse flower”.  This species is often kept in botanical garden collections including, I understand, at Fairchild in Miami and Selby in Sarasota.  It takes ten years of growth to become mature enough to flower.

This unique group of flowers is not for everyone, but it can offer a seasonal flower and foliage display that is pretty dependable and certainly eye-catching if not nose-worthy!  For more information on all types of plants suitable for planting in our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times –https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/charlotte/docs/pdf/Plant-Clinics-Schedule1.pdf. Our Eastport Environmental Demonstration Garden is always open to the public outside the gate at 25550 Harbor View Road.  Master Gardener volunteers tend this garden on Tuesday mornings from 8 to 10 am and are available for questions.  Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or ralph.mitchell@charlottecountyfl.gov.

Resources:
Essig, F. B. (2002) Amorphophallus. http://shell.cas.usf.edu/~essig/Florida%20Gardening/2002-02%20Essig%20-%20Amorphophallus.pdf
Mahr, S. (2012) Voodoo Lily, Amorphophallus konjac. University of Wisconsin Extension – Madison.
Amorphophallus titanium. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amorphophallus_titanum

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