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You'll be hard pressed to find a group of plants as strange as some of those found in the aroid genus Amorphophallus. Among these can be found the largest inflorescence and single leaves that look like trees. The most commonly grown species go dormant in winter, making them ideal for the northern tropical garden. But you haven't had the full experience of these plants until you've smelled the inflorescences . . .
"You got a dead cat in your garden, or what?"
It's a warm Spring morning in your tropical retreat. You've invited a friend over to see your newly emerged exotics, proud of how wonderful they look and anxious to show them off. You are just ready to go out back and check on your babies when the doorbell rings. Your friend has arrived, so now you both will be able to tour the garden and enjoy the fresh and beautiful tropical splendor together in the warm morning sunshine. However, as you go out on the garden path, a deep and ominous odor wafts towards you both. Your friend queries, "Have you missed your cat lately? I think there's something dead in your garden!". You look at them in dismay; then, with a start, you begin wondering where your cat really is, and if your friend is correct, because you smell it too. "Eau de felinus putridus!" Had Kitty really met her demise; a horrid, untimely end with fetid consequences?
A startling discovery!
Trying hard to subdue incipient panic, you begin a casual but urgent search for the inevitable corpse. Meanwhile, your friend has come to a halt, waiting on the path for you to go first and make the grisly find by yourself. With trained eyes, you notice more than a few flies nearby, apparently buzzing in and out from behind a large lower leaf on one of your Big Ear plants. Feeling dread, you creep towards the leaf, expecting to see the rotting, maggot-infested remains of your dear pet lying there on the ground behind it. In great trepidation, you reach out and push the large leaf aside to reveal . . .
Oh, this is wonderful, " you exclaim, "My Amorphophallus paeonifolius is in bloom today! How lucky you are to have come by just now to see it." Secretly, you knew Kitty was fine because you left her inside when you came out with your friend to see the garden. But you had to enjoy the situation because the most intense part of the visual and olfactory Amorphophallus bloom spectacle lasts but one day.
The genus Amorphophallus is a group of aroids with peculiar leaves and inflorescences that are sometimes spectacular in size as well as in odious fragrance. Different species have inflorescences that are reminiscent of rotten eggs, well-aged sneakers, badly decomposed animal remains, and other rather distinctive aromas. Unlike the sweetly fragrant blooms on most familiar garden plants, these flowers rely on flies, not bees, to do their pollination work. The flies do not disappoint, for when these blooms open for the first time, the swarms of them can be heard almost before the odor of the bloom is detected. One time, I had a specimen of Amorphophallus bloom inside a small domed shadehouse. Because it was enclosed, the flies could not get in, so they buzzed around and on the shadecloth, trying to find an entrance. Meanwhile, because this was south Florida, the little anole lizards came round for the buffet feast. It was interesting to see the lizards picking off the flies that were present in such abundant numbers.
Your own natural patio umbrella?
Equally fascinating are the leaves produced by these plants. Mature plants will produce a single leaf from the underground tuber, but this leaf will have the appearance of a tree of sorts. This three-branched, single trunked structure will appear to have many "leaves", but each is just a portion of the whole, which itself is the actual leaf (see example to left). Well-grown specimens can become large enough to serve as a patio umbrella for the summer. Fortunately for your patio guests, the plant usually does not bloom in years when it produces a leaf. So you won't have to serve Limburger cheese in an attempt to mask the odor of the blooms when you are visiting with your friends beneath the shade of your Amorphophallus leaf!
The most common species of Amorphophallus grown are A. rivieri 'Konjac', A. paeonifolius, and A. bulbifer, so named because the leaves produce small tuberlets in the axils of the "branches". These tuberlets will produce new plants for you in the Spring following the year in which the leaf produced them. The first two species have blooms with the rotting flesh odor, while the last one sometimes smells of eggs that have gone way past their prime, and sometimes seems to have no odor at all. The specimen shown in the thumbnail picture at the beginning of this article is A. titanum, the Titan Arum, highly sought after by Amorphophallus aficionados, but one of the most challenging plants to grow to maturity. It takes many years to become large enough to bloom, but when it does, it is a community event! Most often these blooms are advertised by, and seen at, botanical gardens in the springtime. The plant shown in the photo was seen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida.
Photo credit: LariAnn Garner, Aroidia Research
About LariAnn Garner
LariAnn has been gardening and working with plants since her teenage years growing up in Maryland. Her intense interest in plants led her to college at the University of Florida, where she obtained her Bachelor's degree in Botany and Master of Agriculture in Plant Physiology. In the late 1970s she began hybridizing Alocasias, and that work has expanded to Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Caladiums as well. She lives in south Florida with her partner and son and is research director at Aroidia Research, her privately funded organization devoted to the study and breeding of new, hardier, and more interesting aroid plants.