What does it say about Amorphophallus konjac that most of its common names (as well as its genus name) are provocative? The answer will becomes obvious once you see a photo of snake lily (my preferred name for it). Such a provocative-looking specimen merits a moniker to match.
The genus name breaks down as "misshapened penis" (Amorpho + phallus). Besides "snake lily," one of its common names is "devil's tongue." This is a family web site, so I'll stick with "snake lily": compared to the X-rated and satanic images evoked by these other names, it seems rather tame.
What Is Snake Lily?
OK, enough about the name for now, as interesting as it may be. Exactly what type of plant is snake lily? Well, it's not really a lily. One way to classify it is as a corm plant. That is, it grows from an underground plant part that resembles -- but, botanically, is distinct from -- a bulb. This starchy corm is actually made into a food product in Asia. Another way to classify it is in terms of its reproductive system: it is monoecious.
Snake lily is a plant indigenous to southeastern Asia. It is cold-hardy only to growing zones 8-10. So if you live in the North and wish to grow this exotic wonder, be prepared to bring it inside when temperatures start to drop in fall.
Botanists place the plant in the Araceae family (sometimes plants in this family are called "arums" or "aroids"). The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is the biggest in the Amorphophallus genus; it is notorious for taking decades before blooming. That is why, when one finally does bloom in a botanical garden somewhere, it becomes a news story.
Other members of this family are better known in North America. Of these, peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum), with its tall flower stalk, perhaps resembles snake lily the most. But some shorter plants that are native to North America are also arums, including jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). The latter is named, of course, for its foul smell, which brings us to an attribute of snake lily's that is every bit as in-your-face as its provocative appearance:
Attributes: Why Gardeners Grow Snake Lily
There are no two ways about it: snake lily flowers stink to high heaven! For purposes of pollination, they emit an odor designed to attract insects that feed on carrion (as opposed to most plants with which you're familiar, which attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, etc. for pollination). But before continuing, let me be clear about what I mean by the "flowers."
The picture at the top of the page shows not the flowers, but rather the spathe and spadix. You may be familiar with these features from having observed peace lily or jack in the pulpit. But you can't see the actual flowers in this shot, because the spathe is blocking your view (their tucked further down inside). These true flowers are nothing special at all to look at. The only reason I mention them is that they are responsible for the stench emitted by snake lily. People grow this tropical plant not for its flowers but for the spathe and spadix, which, as you can see, are quite showy. The whole plant is lightly mottled during this phase.
Now you might wonder, "OK, but what about the leaves? Where are they located?" Well, you can see the leaves (or, to be more accurate, "leaf") in the picture on this page. If you're experiencing a disconnect between the two pictures, don't worry: there's a good reason for your confusion, as I'll explain now:
A Tale of Two Plants: Spring Phase and Summer Phase
Growing snake lily is almost like growing two totally different plants. That's because what the plant looks like in spring is drastically different from what it looks like in summer. The easiest way for me to illustrate this point will be to relate the story of how I introduced snake lily into my own landscape and observed its development.
I bought the corm at a nursery while traveling during the second week in June and planted it 6 inches deep in my tall raised bed when I returned home one week later. By the first week in July its shoot had punctured the soil surface. The way the plant takes off from this point is a marvel to behold and -- as a novelty -- qualifies as another selling point for growing the plant. Children, especially, will be mesmerized by this rapid growth rate during what I'm calling the "Summer Phase." For, by the first week in August, my snake lily was over 2 1/2 feet tall with a "wing span" of 40 inches. A week later it reached its zenith: 3 feet tall and 42 inches wide.
I dug the corm up on October 24 after we had a freeze and the leaves wilted. I dried the corm outside during the daytime for a few days. Then I simply placed it (along with some baby corms it had produced) in a milk crate and stored it all winter in a corner of our bedroom, a room that stays above freezing but that never gets much above 50 degrees Fahrenheit during this period.
I then more or less forgot about the corm for months, until one day, right around the beginning of April, my wife said, "Do you know there's a huge shoot coming out of your corm?" Indeed there was, so I moved it out of the cool bedroom, potted it up, and kept it in the warmer living room (it was still way too cold outside to move it outdoors).
The Spring Phase had officially begun -- with a bang. By the third week in April this "shoot" (i.e., the flower stalk) had formed a distinct spathe and spadix, and the stench from the tiny flowers inside was not far behind. For an indication of how much height the snake lily had put on in just a month or so, return to the top of the page to have another look at the picture I've provided. Extreme growth spurts thus characterize this plant at the beginning of both the Spring Phase and Summer Phase.
In another week, the spathe and spadix were still present, but the terrible smell had faded away. The flowers inside had "done their thing," and the Spring Phase was slowly being phased out. With each passing week the spathe and spadix got droopier and droopier. Once it was gone, it was the turn of the flower stalk to begin deteriorating, a process that was complete before the fifth week of May. By the very end of May a new shoot was visible on the corm. We had come full circle, and now it was time to replant the corm in the raised bed and enjoy it as a fast-growing foliage plant, which, technically, consists of a single leaf supported by a heavily mottled stalk.
The baby corms, too, incidentally, had sprouted, so I potted them up.
How to Grow Snake Lily
As a jungle plant in its native habitat, snake lily doesn't want full sun, which could burn its leaves. Instead, grow it in dappled sunshine or in partial shade. Although it requires a moist soil, you must make sure that this soil is fast-draining, as well. A heavy feeder, be sure to mix generous amounts of compost into the soil. Let the foliage die back on its own (rather than cutting it prematurely), so that you allow it to send as much nutrition down to the corm as possible for future growth.
More About the Names
Other provocative common names for Amorphophallus konjac include voodoo lily and dragon plant. The specific epithet is pronounced like the brandy drink, cognac.
Uses in Landscaping, Drawbacks
The fact that snake lily is King of Stinkers in the flower world could obviously be considered a drawback. Exacerbating matters is the fact that its blooming period (which is its stinky period) comes early, meaning that Northern gardeners (unless they own greenhouses) may be forced to live under the same roof with this stinker, since it's too tender to tolerate the cold of the outdoors. Mercifully, the period of the truly awful stench lasts for just a few days. Nevertheless, it takes a special kind of plant-loving family to overlook the inconvenience.
During the summer, treat it as a foliage plant for use around partially shaded water features. Some may wish to use the babies to line a partially shaded walkway. In order to make overwintering easier, it makes sense to grow snake lilies in containers of some sort. But if you have plenty of babies and therefore regard some of them as expendable, there's no reason you can't grow them in the ground for the summer and treat them as if they were annuals.
This is one unusual plant, a specimen that will never bore you. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching it undergo its yearly transformations -- so much so that I have included it on my list of the most fun plants to grow outdoors.