Cultivating a plant that is beautiful, edible and beneficial medicinally has been a four-year joy for the Cleveland couple who laughed when they shared the given names of the unusual plant — from voodoo lily and devil’s tongue to snake palm and its scientific name — Amorphophallus konjac. The plant is not a flower, but a group of tiny flowers that are guaranteed to captivate the avid gardener.
“A friend of ours, F.O. Richardson. gave me one bulb and we started it from that,” Donald said. “I heard about this plant but I had never seen it. I heard it was like a snake! It even sheds its skin like a snake. I also heard they call it a ‘voodoo plant’ in Africa.”
The plants grows from a tuber which is similar to what most people call a bulb, only this is different. This plant has its stem (tuber) growing underground. The stem is the plant’s main support and its roots anchor the plant either to the ground, to a tree or to a rock.
Cynthia, a member of the Aldersgate Garden Club in Cleveland, said, “When Donald brought it home we put it in a paper bag. When spring came I found the paper bag and opened it up and this thing was growing. So Donald planted it outside. That was two years ago, and it came up looking like a tree. The second time it came up inside the house. This time it came up with a bloom.”
The Humes said they have enjoyed gardening together for more than 30 years, but admit their experience with the voodoo lily plant for the past four years is a first in their horticultural history.
“It only blooms in the winter months,” Cynthia said. “It won’t bloom outside. It will bloom inside if it’s in a pot. Only the mature ones will bloom. The babies won’t bloom until they are mature. It’s been in that same pot for four years. I keep it in the back bedroom. It stays by a window to get that morning sun and it’s bloomed twice.”
Experts say it is seldom necessary to grow the plants from seeds since even small tubers produce many offsets which easily detach from the parent plant. The plant, however, is best known for its culinary properties. It has been grown as a food crop in Japan for centuries. The tubers contain a carbohydrate called “mannan” which, when bonded with glucose, produces a calorie-free substance now used in slimming products and to alleviate bowel problems.
The known 170 species of Amorphophallus are mainly distributed in the tropics between West Africa to the east and into Polynesia. Especially in the tropical and subtropical regions of Asia this diverse and unique species of plant has been used as a food source as well as in traditional medicine. Although it has been used in China for thousands of years, increased interest in the voodoo lily plant for its potential use in human nutrition, with the potential to treat obesity, has become popular.
“Some cultures chop up the stem and eat it,” Cynthia said. Donald said if his wife ever cooked it, he would not eat it. The couple said they would recommend others in the community to get familiar with the plant and raise their own. But both warned that it can emit a very foul odor that may surprise you.
“Some people also call it the ‘stinky plant,’” Cynthia said. “It lives up to that name.”
Some have likened the stench to a decaying corpse, which is exactly what the plant needs to attract its insect pollinators. Although not terribly foul, the odor can last for a few days. This most unusual plant has one giant leaf on top of a tall, green and purple, fleshy stalk that resembles a giant vase made from purple vinyl. When old enough, the tuber produces a 5-inch flower before the leaf emerges. After flowering, the plant may rest for months before the leaf emerges in late June. The mother tuber will form offsets, eventually making a giant clump which has been described as very exotic.
The voodoo lily, as the couple prefer to call it, can grow as large as 3 feet tall and withstand much lower temperatures than its tropical cousins. It is also able to cope with cooler spells down to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius). The amazing plant should be watered often in the summer but only occasionally in the winter.
Bizarre, stunning, interesting and even useful, the voodoo lily earns its place in the collection of plant enthusiasts and is sure to go down as one of the most exceptional organisms of the wondrous plant families.