By Tamsin Varley
A Botanical Curiosity
I was given a couple of small voodoo lily tubers four years ago by a very knowledgeable gardener who loves botanical curiosities. I’d never heard of it, so raced home and researched it on Google.
The Latin genus name is Amorphophallus and is in the Arum or Araceae family. It consists of about 200 species of tropical and subtropical plants that originate in Asia and Africa. Amorphophallus in Greek means misshapen or deformed phallus – thus derived from the prominent spadix.
The tubers I’d been given were round in shape and a bit smaller than a walnut. The web informed me that they should be planted deeply in organic-rich soil in a pot 10 cm larger than the diameter of the bulb. They prefer shade to semi-shade, so I grow mine in pots under the shade of a large olive tree. Once the tuber is large enough, it will flower and apparently the flowers stink of carrion as are pollinated by flies. Once the inflorescence has died, the leaf appears – sometimes a month later.
The single leaf emerges in about June and is an extraordinary sight to behold. First of all, the mottled pink and olive-green leaf stalk appears and the single leaf bursts out from the top of it. It grows horizontally and is split into three sections. Once it has unfurled, it looks rather like an umbrella. The leaf size is related to the size of the tuber. My tubers resembled an orange or grapefruit in size last year and consequently, the leaves were the largest they’ve been so far – an impressive 1-1.25 metres across and almost a metre tall. The leaf only lasts one season and dies back in the autumn.
Once the leaf starts to die, I stop watering the plants and then move the pots into a sheltered place to over-winter. Last year, I planted one of the tubers into a flower bed as I don’t want its growth restricted by a pot. I’ve been amazed at how quickly the tubers have increased in size and hope they might produce a foul-smelling flower in the not-too-distant future. Recently, a fellow member of Clube Dos Bons Jardins contacted me and told me that she has a voodoo lily in her garden that flowers every year. I was invited to visit when it was in flower and, as it happened, that was just last week. It was amazing – a beautiful deep purply-pink collar or spathe supporting the prominent black spadix. A truly memorable sight for a plant fiend like me.
Whilst writing this article, my memory was jogged to an occasion in the 1990s when a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium) was in flower at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I was desperate to see it, so I joined a long queue and eventually got to file past it. We weren’t allowed to stop and admire it so had to take photos as I walked past it as slowly as possible. It was an extraordinary sight as the inflorescence was at least three metres tall, but strangely enough, I don’t recall any odour at all. I’ve just read that such a tuber typically weighs 50 kg but the world record is held by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh who had a tuber the size of an orange which weighed 153.9 kg after seven years.
Tamisin is a member of Clube Dos Bons Jardins, a small, friendly multi-national garden club that meets at different locations around the Algarve on the 2nd Tuesday of every month – except over the summer – with an optional lunch afterwards.