This stinker blooms only once every several years, and you can’t miss the smell when it does.
IF YOU’RE A plant nut, you must try growing a few of the “fragrant” wonders of the horticultural world.
The big mama of them all is the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). Although it blooms only once every several years, it consistently creates quite a stir in the Volunteer Park greenhouse. This Sumatran rain forest native produces the largest flower on Earth, with blossoms that can weigh more than 100 pounds. As is true of all plants in the Arum family, the giant flower consists of a vase-shaped structure known as a spathe, made up of modified leaves (bracts), which surround a central upright flower spike (the spadix).
The spathe on the corpse flower is striped green and white on the outside and a meaty red within. The yellowish-brown spadix can reach almost 6 feet tall. The combination, if not exactly beautiful, is a fascinating sight.
The attribute that makes everyone run for the door, however, is the overpowering stench of rotting flesh, emitted to attract carrion beetles. Sadly, the corpse flower isn’t hardy enough to grow in our gardens, and attempting it as a houseplant is guaranteed to lead to expensive relationship counseling.
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Fortunately, a few incredibly cool Amorphophallus are hardy enough to grow outdoors year-round in the Puget Sound region. The best, in my opinion, is konjac voodoo lily (Amorphophallus konjac). For the first few years after planting the tuber, the only growth you’ll see is a fleshy, mottled green-and-purple stalk topped by a large, tropical-looking, heavily cut leaf.
Keep the plant well-fed, and every year the stalk will grow taller, until it eventually reaches 4 to 5 feet. Once that happens, things get exciting: The tuber will have gained enough size to produce a flower. If all goes well, in the following spring, a 2-foot-tall vase-shaped flower will appear, heavily stippled on the outside with shiny, lacquered purple within. From the center, a burgundy spear shoots upward to 3 feet.
Hold your nose. The stench is almost as overpowering as that of its bigger cousin!
Plant the tubers 4 to 6 inches deep in well-drained, humus-rich soil in an area with early-morning sun or partial shade. After flowering, the plant will rest for a month, or even a year, before it will produce any leaf growth.
The tubers cannot withstand saturated conditions, so protect the roots from winter rains by mulching with a thick cover of water-repellent evergreen fern fronds in the fall. If the plant is happy, mother tubers divide, creating big, aromatic clumps to attract all the flies in the neighborhood.
Another Amorphophallus relative, also commonly called voodoo lily, is Sauromatum venosum. In spring, this shade-loving Arum from the Himalayas and southern India produces a devilishly attractive flower featuring a wildly colorful red, yellow and purple spotted, footlong tonguelike extension. The upward-facing maroon spadix resembles a bony finger.
Mercifully, the overpowering odor usually lasts only about four hours. The flower is followed by a spotted stem that grows to 3 to 4 feet tall and forms a large, heavily cut leaf at the top. These easy-to-grow shade lovers also divide regularly to produce large colonies in shady, moist conditions.
Finally, dragon lily (Dracunculus vulgaris) is an incredibly beautiful relative of Amorphophallus that often mysteriously shows up in Puget Sound gardens, spread by birds. The first thing you’ll notice is an exotic-looking, green-and-purple mottled stem that grows to 3 or 4 feet tall with a few heavily divided leaves. Then, in mid- to late-June, an 18-inch-tall, sinisterly beautiful, dark-purple hooded calla lily-like flower appears.
It isn’t the beautiful flower, however, that will get your attention: This one smells like a whole herd of cattle died in your backyard.
Hardy to minus-20 degrees, these easy-to-grow plants thrive in well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Offsets, easily dug up in winter, make fun Christmas gifts. I guarantee the friends you give them to will be thinking of you when they bloom by their front doors next spring.