Voodoo in the garden

Last week, while I was taking a walk around the neighborhood, a neighbor asked me about a strange plant that was blooming at the rear of his garden.

illustration by Peter Loewer

“It has an odd, perhaps bizarre flower—almost malevolent—and a powerful smell, but it could be termed ‘interesting’ in the right setting,” he said.

“It’s a voodoo lily,” I replied, “a member of the arum family. I know it well.”

At that, my thoughts drifted back to my first greenhouse and the strange plants it often contained. Back when it bloomed for me the first time—indoors—I remember our dog preparing for an afternoon walk. He sauntered by my chair wagging his tail, passed under the small window that looks out upon the greenhouse, and suddenly gave point.

It was a classic stance: the nose pointing up at the window, the front forearm crooked, and the tail straight out behind. Then caution went by the board. The word “agitation” does not describe his behavior, as he suddenly gave up all thoughts of decorum and began pulling on the lead, wanting to race from one end of the room to another.

“Do you smell something?” my wife had asked, tugging at the animal’s leash and trying in vain to quiet him. “Something dead?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I answered carefully.

“It smells familiar,” she mused. “I’ve got it: That awful plant you grew that was pollinated by flies. It has a rotten smell just like this.”

“You mean the devil’s tongue.”

I thought for a moment. I had not been in the greenhouse for a week, but I remembered that the last time I looked, the voodoo lily had sent a small, dark, maroon spike through the soil.

“Open the door to the greenhouse and check the last shelf,” I said.

My wife put the dog on a “stay” command and opened the greenhouse door.

At the first breath of moist air that entered the room, the dog gave a yelp and leaped into the air. Rushing past my chair in a flurry of legs and a vibrating tail, he ran into the greenhouse, not stopping till he reached the far end, whereupon he started barking. We were greeted by such a wall of odor that all I can say is, it gave us pause.

“You did!” she exclaimed. “You grew another one of those obnoxious plants!”

“No,” I said, “This one is entirely new. It’s called the voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris). But I must admit it belongs to the same family and obviously smells worse.”

Mail-order nurseries often advertise this plant as a curiosity (no garden should be without one), but they never actually print a photo of it. Instead a drawing is featured, portraying a bizarre type of jack-in-the-pulpit with a speckled hood that’s almost 18 inches high. I suddenly knew why photos are unavailable: There are no paparazzi willing to stand about and record this plant’s life story.

“It has to go,” she declared.

“I agree. Put it out on the back terrace. The flower only lasts a day or two, then fades away—to be followed by some very attractive foliage.”

My wife went for the plant muttering, “Foliage, smoliage.” She returned holding the pot at arm’s length. The flower’s hood had collapsed into a sodden mass, bruised and wet-looking. The dog, however, trotted happily along behind her.

“I lived through the stapeliads,” she said, “and the devil’s tongue. Now the voodoo lily. Please, please, no more!”

“Right,” I said.

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