what’s that smell? it’s voodoo (not moodoo)

sauromatum bloomI THOUGHT my dairy-farmer neighbors had spread the slurry stashed in winter, the unsweetest smell of a rural spring, but a reassuring one, since all that recycled animal “waste” makes great fertilizer. But then I went outside and the smell was gone—meaning it wasn’t moodoo after all but in fact voodoo. Specifically the voodoo lily, a potted plant sitting in my mudroom waiting for the weather to settle before they go outdoors, woke up way too early after the winter that never was.

Ugh. And also: Wow, that’s some smell. With the smell of dead meat, it’s intended for attracting flies, its desired pollinators.

The voodoo lily is Sauromatum venosum (also Typhonium venosum), originally from Southern India, and I stash pots of them and other not-quite-hardy bulb-like things in the cellar, where they spend the winter dry and cool and dark. This one might make it outside; it’s rated Zone 6A and I am a 5B, but I love these oddballs best shown off in containers.

sauromatum emergingNormally, the voodoo lily and the rest are only just stirring around now, but their long winter’s nap wasn’t as long as usual. In early March, I was down in the dungeon called my basement checking mousetraps—my one steady job these days, and if you don’t keep up with it, you’ll create a scent not dissimilar from the voodoo lily’s. I noticed someone botanical was already awake; a few inches of voodoo lily were showing in one pot (above).

Uh-oh; now what? I waited a week or so, to see if it just sat there at that growth stage, but no—it kept growing, bone dry (since November), and dark, but growing. Not long after that discovery, I carried it upstairs—not wanting it to stretch too much in the darkness, but completely forgetting what stinking outburst was to come.

I didn’t fall for it again; as other pots woke up over following weeks, I brought them into a shed, not the house.

eucomis detailsMy collection of potted pineapple lilies, or Eucomis (above) spend winter down in the cellar, too, alongside the voodoo lilies, and giant clumps of my one and only beloved Canna, known as “the banana canna.” They’re all just stirring now—and come to think of it, some of those smell none too good at bloom time, either (likewise, to attract flies). Thankfully, they’ll be out in the open air well ahead of then.

sauromatum venosum foliageAll of them also have great foliage–the voodoo lily’s is tropical-looking, with a hand-shaped fan (above) atop spotted stems (below, a hint of the stem with a cluster of seeds forming at the base). I highly recommend both voodoo lilies and pineapple lilies for conversation-starting summer pots you can enjoy year to year—as long as you get your timing right, and stay upwind.

sauromatum forming seedsordering voodoo lilies

sauromatum venosum

  1. Liane S says:

    I was sold this plant with a wrong tag, as an Arisaema taiwenense. The mottled stem and foliage are beautiful and striking in the garden. I knew it was the wrong plant one day last week when a swarm of flies hovered outside my garage and I followed the stench to this flower! Stunning — in both senses of the word. Luckily, the stench really only lasted a day.

  2. Maureen Banner says:

    I had VooDoo lilies in a big pot with big old Callas, and thought it was a weird Calla coming up.
    While I was searching the garden for the dog poop that was stinking up the whole yard
    Abbey the Sheltie came over to the big pot and took extraordinary interest in it; thus showing me where the stink was coming from, and reminding me that I had planted Callas and Voodoos together.

  3. Brenda Gens says:

    I’ve had my Amorphophallus konjac (Konjac Voodoo Lily), for 6 years now. It has bloomed for me for 3 years in a row. I plant it directly into my shade border for the summer months, then dig it up and put the bulb in a ice cream bucket, which gets placed in a closet in my basement. When we got home from AZ the end of March it was all ready sprouted up 36″! Always amazes me how it can do this, with no soil, no water, and no light! It grew to about 60″, and when it flowered had to go out to the garden shed. I let it die back down, and towards the end of May the bulb will again get planted out in the garden. The summer foliage is quite beautiful, and always brings questions from fellow gardeners.

    1. margaret says:

      Aren’t bulbs like this amazing? Such warriors, surviving the trenches (or the ice bucket in the cellar!). : )

  4. Jane in SoCal Mts says:

    I too have encountered the essence of Voodoo lily! As a diversion (most assuredly in that I was a college student at the time) I ordered such a lily. I had no idea that this botanical creature would be anything less than an exotic addition to a rather drab dormitory. Altho quickly cast to the outdoors, my former college roomate continues to remind me of the fragrance that apparently continues to linger more than four decades later.

  5. Cathy Johnson says:

    I planted a voodoo lily to use in my college dorm room years ago. You could almost see it growing toward my roommates desk. When it flowered, it almost ran us out of our small room. Linda, my dorm mate, sprayed it with Lysol which killed the plant. I may want to try it again when I can put it outside once it blooms. (It left us with a funny memory of our college days.)

  6. Becky says:

    You’ve all given me a quest.. I just have to have so
    have some voodoo Lily: The beautiful warriorplant that can live, ignored, in my basement all winter.

    I’m excited.

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