The Mystery of the Missing Amorphophallus
What is Amorphophallus paeoniifolius?
A novelty plant in Southwest Florida, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius (A. paeoniifolius) is a favorite of eclectic plant collecting gardeners. Examples of common names are Elephant Foot Yam, Sweet Yam, Snake Lily or Corpse Flower. Like all amorphophallus species, it has a large underground stem called a corm. The corm resembles a rounded bird’s nest.
A. paeoniifolius is grown for food in many parts of the world. This includes India, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the tropic Pacific islands. All parts of the leafy plant are edible and are used in many regional recipes. The A. paeoniifolius flower resembles a dark purple brain centered in a wrap-around frilly lettuce leaf. The common name of Corpse Flower becomes clear when the flower produces an unpleasant, powerful odor. The stench attracts insect pollinators including the metallic Green Bottle Fly and carrion beetles. The strong stench occurs only for one night.
Amorphophallus plants do not produce flowers with annual regularity. During April – June in Southwest Florida, a viable corm will produce either the leafy plant or a flower. Flowers do not occur until the corm is sufficiently mature and then only when the conditions are just right. Even when a corm produces a flower one year, it may produce only the leafy plant for several years, even up to a decade, before it blooms again.
Other Amorphophallus Species
Amorphophallus species number to 230 world wide. The species called Love Lily, Devil’s Tongue or Voodoo Lily is the A. konjac. Chinese and Japanese medicine reveres the A. konjac as a source of healing properties.
The endangered and giant Amorphophallus titanium species is commonly referred to as the Corpse Flower, Stinky Plant and Titan Anum) . It produces the largest unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom. Flowers from this species grow to 12 feet tall in their native rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. Worldwide conservation efforts are underway because of shrinking habitat. Only 1000 A. titanium plants are known to exist in the wild.
The A. paeoniifolius is special to me as it was a favorite plant of my mother Julia Leigh. Mom acquired a corm of what she called a “Snake Lily” from a Master Gardener Volunteer colleague in the 1990’s. Over the years, the corms multiplied finding their way around her Ft. Myers homestead. Always generous, Mom shared the plants with enthusiasm. Her physician always referred to his gifted plant by its botanical name, Amorphophallus. Years later, Mom’s first flowers bloomed instead of sending up the typical umbrella like leaves. Mom celebrated the unusual flower occurrence. Lee County Horticulture Agent, Stephen Brown came out to take photos and experience the event.
What do you do when you locate a 35-pound “Snake Lily” corm specimen in your yard? If you are like Mom, you find a special place to donate this plant. It landed at the U. S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. . It was part of their summer educational display of important plants with a role in fighting world hunger.
In spring 2017, Mom donated a large 15-pound corm to the experimental garden at the UF|IFAS Extension Collier County campus in Naples, Florida. The large corm was planted in an oversized landscape pot, where visitors could experience the life cycle. It produced several leafy stems that summer.
In preparation of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, large pots were tipped over and experimental garden items secured. The Category 3 plus storm ripped off the UF/IFAS Extension Collier County building’s metal roof, looking much like an huge, rolled open sardine can. Water from the nearby lake surrounded the experimental garden. Stately trees were ripped out of the ground. Plant debris and destruction was knee deep as far as the eye could see.
Eventually the debris was cleared and our team of dedicated Master Gardener Volunteers diligently put the gardens back in order. It was then realized the A. paeoniifolius plant was on the missing list and considered a loss.
The Mystery Solved
Almost four years after Hurricane Irma, 3 stems with the typical leafy tops of the A. paeoniifolius were observed mixed in with the littoral plants on the bank of the lake . Apparently, the corm floated back towards the lake when the water receded.
A Life Well Lived
In 2020, Mom died just shy of her 92nd birthday. Discovery of the relocated “Snake Lily” is a reminder of the wonderful and at times mysterious legacy of a life of service, dedication and love of a memorable woman and my dear mother, Julia Leigh.