The voodoo lily flower emits a smell that belongs more in the wastebasket than in a flower garden. But the odor has a purpose as butterflies and bees haven’t cornered the market on pollination—flies are eager to get in on the action too. Recognizing this, the voodoo lily evolved with an odoriferous allure designed to attract carrion beetles, blow flies, and other insects that normally seek out decomposing animals.
Gardeners eager for something different in the flowering container garden should look no further than the curious and wonderful Asian native voodoo lily. Just make sure you don’t plan an outdoor wedding while the bloom is at its peak.
The genus Amorphophallus actually includes about 170 species, so make sure you know what you're getting when you buy: Size varies depending on species; you can cultivate dwarf types that top out at a few inches, while others reach 6 feet or greater.
The inflorescence of the voodoo lily is dominated by the central stalk that is the source of the genus name, although this protrusion is actually sterile. The protruding part of the bloom is the source of the flower’s unique odor, and the fertile flowers are contained within the circular petal-like structure, called a spathe, which is a modified leaf. Sometime after blooming, the voodoo lily corm will emit a speckled stem, or petiole, followed by a highly divided leaf, like an umbrella.
The voodoo lily is unlike many plants in that the flower appears first, and the foliage may not make an appearance for another month, or in some cases, up to a year later! Gardeners inexperienced with growing these tropical plants may give up, fearing the plant has died. However, after the bulb has a period of rest, it will send up a single stem bearing a fan of flowers.
Plant your voodoo lily corm or tuber 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil’s surface. If the corm isn’t deep enough, the top-heavy plant may pull free from the soil. For this same reason, place the corm in a sturdy concrete or ceramic container that won’t tip over easily. Choose a potting mix rich with organic matter. A shovelful of leaf mold or well-rotted compost will provide a welcome boost of nutrients to the corm. Partial to full shade is best for these woodland plants. Grow in a protected area in zone 7; otherwise, grow in zones 8 through 10.
Voodoo lilies can be pricey plants, and nurseries make the plants affordable by selling small offsets or tubers. Gardeners may have to wait from three to five years to see the first bloom appear on a plant. In the meantime, good plant husbandry must be practiced all along to reap the delayed rewards.
Voodoo lilies like a good drink, and then a period of dryness. Too much water can collect in depressions that form on the tuber, leading to rot. A monthly fertilizer rich in phosphate encourages a healthy root system.
When the flower fades, you can remove it, but take care not to cut the emerging leaf. When the leaf fades, and the plant enters dormancy, withhold fertilizer and water sparingly. The corm may rest for several months before growth resumes. At this time, continue to water and fertilize as before. Voodoo lilies have varying frost tolerance: know your plant's growing zone, and give it winter protection indoors as needed.
With proper care, voodoo lilies can be very long-lived plants. Tubers will also grow large over time, requiring larger pots. Dedicated gardeners who grow the giant corpse flower Amorphophallus titanium may end up with a tuber that weighs over a hundred pounds. Repot your voodoo lily during the dormant period for the plant. Take care not to nick or cut the tuber, which could lead to fungus and rot and a sad ending to your years of nurturing.
This is one plant that deserves a place in the spotlight, and therefore in a container on your patio, porch, or deck. To highlight the exotic appeal of the flower, plant it in a container that offers a vibrant color contrast to the bloom. Purple flowers look spectacular in acid green pots; try a vivid orange pot for a green flower.
Choose your voodoo lily by the Latin species name to ensure you’re getting a plant with the color and size qualities you seek.
- A. henryi: The burgundy spathe is disproportionately large on a two-foot stem.
- A. konjac: A shiny rich purple bloom makes a statement on a five-foot stem in May; plants are hardy to zone 6. Several weeks after flowering, a single leaf stalk will emerge on a funky speckled stem.
- A. ongsakulii: Three-inch plants demand scrutiny as a tabletop specimen.