Not your everyday flower

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A day before opening fully.

She produces a flower every other year, and this is her year to do so. She is Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, the voodoo flower whom we call Phyllis. (Phyllis the Amorphophallus has a kind of reverse alliterative quality.) We’ve had her for a number of years. She lives among bromeliads, beneath the shade of a foxtail palm. Although she goes dormant every winter, I’ve never dug up her tuber, but just allowed her to remain resting in place. Deni Bown in her book Aroids, Plants of the Arum Family, says paeoniifolius tubers may weigh up to 29 pounds!

Her specific name means foliage like a peony, but it seems a stretch. Certainly, she smells nothing like a peony blossom, but draws flies and beetles with a carrion aroma.

In the wild, she ranges from India to southern China, Southeast Asia, right over to New Guinea and

Phyllis in her glory.

the northern parts of Australia. In some places, people actually eat the tubers.

The flower of this aroid has the family characteristic: a spathe and a spadix. The spathe, normally a fairly simple modified leaf that protects the spadix or inflorescence, is a wrap-around number, liver-colored and white spotted on the outside and creamy on the inside. It falls open gradually to reveal the spadix, a remarkable construction with a topknot that looks like a liver-colored balloon in mid-deflate.

Today, Phyllis has been fully open. I can clearly see the yellow male and white female flowers. By mid-afternoon, golden pollen emerged from the anthers, which surround the column above the female flowers.

Following the flowering event, a single leaf will arise from the tuber, growing to five or six feet tall, and sporting a much-divided leaf blade. The mottled petiole will sport a bumpy texture, and is always quite handsome. Around November, the tree-like leaf will begin to list, until one day, it finally fails and must be carried gently to the trash pile.

A closer look at the flowers.

I give Phyllis granular fertilizer, although I remember that Craig Allen, a former conservatory horticulturist, used to give the containerized Amorphophallus titanum (Mr. Stinky) lots of aged manure and, I think, Milorganite, in an effort to produce a flower stalk of record height. Phyllis is a squat thing by nature, however, and I’ve read somewhere that her spadix may reach 2 feet after the females have been pollinated. She is no match for Mr. Stinky, but we are quite fond of her and always show her to any visitors during flowering time.