Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Voodoo Lilies

So I was perusing a new perennial catalog the other day. In fact, I perused two. But this one kind of set the hair on the back of my neck to tingling. The room got all watery and swirly; this weird music started playing. I was back home on 10th Street. Peggy and I were about 10 and 11; we had been sent over to Mrs. Shipley’s house to cut back her hedge.

We had the clippers and a ladder. We were discussing whether or not we’d find a bird’s nest or maybe a paper wasp hive. We both had noticed a new plant growing next to Mrs. Shipley’s garage. It had strange black strap like leaves. And overnight a funny looking flower had emerged. It was purple and had a long yellow wand sticking out of it.

Out of curiosity we ventured over to look. Oh, how I wish we had just walked away. The closer we got, the worse the smell got. Oh my, stinking, rotting meat smell. Mr. DePaola, who lived just to the east of Mrs. Shipley came out and told us that was a lily that only bloomed every once in a while. He and Mrs. DePaola had complained for years. But Mrs. Shipley would not get rid of it. She said it was a treasure; a very expensive plant that had been handed down to her from her mother.

He told us if we took the plant out he would pay us. We ran home to ask Mom what to do. (Mom was paid by Mrs. Shipley’s son to shop for her, take her to the beauty shop, have me mow the lawn, Shelley and Debbie to clean her house. Mrs. Shipley had the beginnings of ‘senile dementia’ now known as Alzheimer’s disease. We cared for her like she was our Grandma.)

Mom was in the bathroom gagging. Seems some horrid smell was getting to her very weak stomach. We told her about the plant. She told us to dig it up, put it in a garbage bag and put that into Mrs. Shipley’s garbage can. We knew Mrs. Shipley wouldn’t remember it. She still thought of her son as a little boy.

Armed with hoes, shovels, and rakes we went to work. Or rather Peggy went to work. I was too busy gagging and chocking. I watched from our front yard as Peggy chopped the plant to smithereens and dug the bulb. She gathered the debris into a bag and tied it shut. After dropping it in the garbage can, Mr. DePaola came out and paid her $20 (a fortune.) I let her keep the whole amount. Peg took off her clothes in the basement and put them directly in the washer set on hot water with bleach. She wrapped in one of Dad’s old shirts he used for painting and ran to take a bath. I don’t know how many times she washed her clothes or bathed. Dad’s shirt went directly into the garbage.

Back to the future, the plant that brought all this on was the Voodoo Lily, Typhonium venosum. There are many plants that have the same characteristics: Dark brown to purple coloration; a yellow or maroon flower stalk, and stink.

They are known collectively as ‘carrion flowers.’ These flowers are fertilized by flies and other carrion eating insects. Usually the bloom lasts less than two days. But those two days can be agony for people who can’t stand the smell.

They reproduce by seed and bulb. Some are regular bloomers. Others bloom irregularly. They like a rich soil that is moist; but not waterlogged. Shade is the preferred sun requirement. Usually vigorous in zones 5 to 10. If you live in a cold weather area you will need to lift the bulbs every fall and replant in spring. Be warned, the bulbs can stink as much or more than the flower.  Be aware that every part of these carrion flower plants is extremely poisonous. Something to think about if there are young children in the area.

When I was a student at Oregon State University, a graduate student brought in an example.  As other Horticulture students gathered around to look at this 'Outer Limits' plant.  I hung back about 300 feet.  The grad student thought I might really want to see this plant.  I told him my story.  He understood.  At the end of the day, I saw the plant still in the same place.  I walked clear aound the greenhouses to get to my car, just to avoid that plant.

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