My kids texted a picture to me last summer of my grandkids standing in front of a magnificent and regal corpse flower blooming in the conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Garden on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The massive bloom towered 8-feet tall with a long spike protruding from the center that rose about 18-24 inches above that.
They were pretty excited about their find and we texted back and forth about it.
The kids claimed it as the highlight of their D.C. trip — to that date at least. It bloomed for the first time in seven years and they had arrived during the 48 hours the bloom lasts before it collapses. (For a time-lapse video of the flower opening see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMQmGGVvWj4#at=15). Talk about good timing! As word had spread, massive crowds had gathered to see the flower and the lines were very long to get close to the smelly monster.
The plant, part of the genus arum, is known as Amorphophallus titanum or Titan arum. It has the reputation for a stench something like rotting mammal meat. Perhaps my grandkids arrived as the smell was fading because they said that it smelled to them more like sweaty socks than dead meat. The flower attracts pollinators in the evening when it emits heat and a strong odor. The pungence dissipates in the daytime and lasts only 24 to 48 hours. It was a giant novelty to say the least!
So I was delighted late last summer, when a fellow Master Gardener gave me a bulb of a smaller cousin to this plant with the intriguing name of Dracunculus vulgaris. Dracunculus is Latin for a small dragon and vulgaris means common — the most common species. It too is of the genus Arum. The Latin name alone is enough to conjure up visions of black cloaks, blood red lips and fangs.
Its common names enhance those mental images. Think of Dragon Arum, Voodoo Lily, Dragonwort, Snake Lily, Black Lily, Ragons, Stinky Lily or Stink Lily. In Greece, its native homeland, it is called Drakondi. Talk about a Halloween natural!
This plant has come by its names honestly. While the creamy speckled, jagged leaves that end in a little curl are attractive and garner garden attention, the bloom can be a show-stopper. In this regard there is good news and bad news.
The good news is its flower form which is similar to a Calla lily. Dracunculus means “small dragon” and refers to the look of the flower. The blossom consists of a spathe, a large petal or bract which circles around a long, slender, pointed appendage known the spadix. Together the spadix and spathe have the appearance of a dragon breathing fire.
The spathe is deep maroon and the spadix which stretches high above the spathe is nearly black. What looks like one flower is actually an inflorescence bearing numerous flowers.
The bad news is that the flower is fly-pollinated. That means that while the colorful bract attracts attention, its nauseous, dungy, rotting meat odor attracts flies. Fortunately, the smell lasts only one day. Needless to say I won’t be placing this plant by my kitchen windows — or even the front door.
Its method of reproduction is a story in itself. The flies, attracted to the plant by the stench, slide down the smooth surface of the spathe and become trapped at the bottom for a day. There are no hairs or bristles to keep them there like some other plants from the Aracea family. Instead, the surface inside is so smooth they keep sliding back down into the bowl of the blossom. In their frenzy to get out, they crawl over the stigmas, and dust them with pollen. In the next few days, the spathe withers and the flies are freed to visit another flower and continue as pollinators.
At the base of the spathe the flies busily if accidentally pollinate 60 to 80 berries that look like upside-down pears and contain only a few seeds each.
The plants spread by self-seeding and bulb offsets. It grows best in full sun in humus rich well-drained soil but it adapts to alkalinity or acidity. Although the root is listed as potentially toxic and a skin irritant, there are no known incidents of ingestion. Apparently the taste is as bad as the smell. No animal will touch it.
I am not the only one intrigued with this plant. It is associated with some pretty imaginative folklore through the ages. For example:
-If you wash your hands in a liquor made from the plant, you can safely handle snakes to your heart’s content.
-Carrying the roots or leaves protects against vipers and serpents. It may have been carried on boats to repel sea serpents.
-It was used to preserve cheese by wrapping the leaves around it.
This plant is listed as hardy to zone 5, with temperatures down to 15 degrees below zero fahrenheit. Tooele’s USDA hardiness zone is 6a or 6 b — so despite its exotic appearance, the bulb should survive most winters here if it is planted in the ground.
Late summer is not the season for these plants — they emerge and bloom in the spring. So, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see my plant growing and blooming. It may take a couple of years for it to bloom, but I am anxious to see it. The whole idea appeals to me because it is so unusual and it produces a large, exotic flower.
Whether or not the plant blossoms next spring, it will be a pretty and fascinating addition to my garden with more interest to come.