Plants that Stink

Bobby Little
Adams County Master Gardner

The smell of rotting meat is not a scent most of us prefer to have in our gardens or homes. However, there is a unique group of people who enjoy growing strange plants, and are probably familiar with the common name of an exotic bulb, voodoo lily. It is from the genus Amorphophallus, and consists of plants typically found in Asia and Africa. Many are known to generate a characteristic bad odor to attract flies, which provide a necessary pollination service.

The plant is just plain weird. Last February, my voodoo bulbs were blooming away in the basement, and I expect the same this year. The leafy foliage died off in the fall, so most stayed safely in the ground till spring, and those in clay pots came to the basement for the winter. The bulbs can stay in the pots, but mine needed transplanted, so I removed them and put them in a brown paper bag. Starting in January, a stalk quickly grew from the bulb to over 5 feet tall, including a 24-inch bloom.

The appearance of the voodoo flower is striking. If you think of a beautiful, graceful calla lily for a moment, this is its creepy cousin. It has a giant tongue (spadix) wrapped in a half-vase (spathe) that is the most evil shade of purple youíve ever seen. If the bloom sees sunlight, it will give off the characteristic foul odor that will get your family dog searching the house for something dead. Best advice: keep it in the dark. Donít expose it to any kind of light or be prepared to move it to the garage where it will be less offensive. Otherwise, it will draw into your heating and ventilation system. The ability to produce such a large bloom with no light, water, or soil nutrients is truly amazing.

In spring, the mature voodoos that wintered outside will bloom when the ground warms, or not, if they donít feel like it. These will definitely smell because of the exposure to sunlight. It took our landscapers half a morning to figure out the location of the stench at our house. Oops, forgot to tell them. The flower dies off and eventually a small herbaceous plant shoots up that looks like a small palm tree. It has no odor and makes a pleasant green addition to your garden. In the fall, the older plants produce a cluster of brilliant orange berries that is truly spectacular, the third form of this odd plant.

Native plants are still my preference for trees, shrubs, and perennials around the house, but itís fun to try exotics in containers. Because of the odor, it is best to keep them in the ground outside. If your basement stays dark, they will bloom and you might not even know it. The species I grow, Amorphophyllus konjac, can survive a Zone 6 winter. I even found a catalog with other less hardy species and have begun trying them in containers outside for summertime. In pots, you can pick them up and move them as needed. I call it Ďmobileí gardening. They make great conversation pieces. Just donít invite dinner guests during their stinky phase.

Read other articles on house plants

Read other articles by Bobbi Little