Monday, June 30, 2008

Unexpected Voodoo

For the last nine months I've walked the same strip of 10th avenue nearly every day. In that time, I watched a small slice of Capitol Hill change from Fall to Winter to... well, let's just call it Springalmostsummersometimeswinter. As the seasons edged noncommittally towards warmer days, the plants began to emerge. One particular bank of plants caught my eye. For several weeks I thought they were Calla Lilies. Yet, as the Calla Lilies leafed out and bloomed, this group of plants continued to grow. I was intrigued.

Eventually, the plants reached a height of approximately three feet. Their foliage emerged from a long, fleshy stem that was mottled purple and white. The leaves resembled the Calla Lilies, but were smaller and more deeply divided. Curious, I kept an eye on them as I walked to and from lunch.

Soon after leafing out, they began to flower. One day, as the flowers were emerging, I showed them to some of my studiomates. Casually touching them, I noticed an odd, yet familiar smell. The stench of rotting meat emanated from the flowers and coated my fingers. Blech!

As it turns out, the plant in question is Dracunculus vulgaris, also known as the Voodoo Lily. It is a native of the Balkans, the Aegean Islands, and SW Turkey. It belongs to the family Araceae, whose members are referred to as arums. D. vulgaris shares the family with the Calla Lily (Zantedeschi spp.), the Corpse Flower ( Amorphophallus titanum), Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), and other plants also called Voodoo Lilies (Sauromatum venosum for example). Araceae is also sometimes jokingly referred to as 'the Houseplant Family,' because so many of its members are used as indoor ornamentals. If you've ever set foot in a mall, restaurant, or office you're probably familiar with Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia spp.), Philodendron (Philodendron spp.), Monstera (Monstera deliciosa), and the ubiquitous Spathiphyllum (Spathiphyllum spp.). The family also contains both the world's largest, unbranching inflorescence (Amorphophallus titanum) and the world's smallest flowering plant (Wolffia spp.). In short, Araceae is a pretty heavy contender for the title of Coolest Plant Family.

Like the other members of its family, the Voodoo Lily sports an inflorescence called a spadix that is surrounded by a hood-like spathe. The individual flowers are clustered on the spadix. Both male and female flowers are found in the same inflorescence with the female flowers occurring lower on the spadix.

Lured by the vivid coloration and lurid stink, flies and beetles enter the mouth of the spathe and become unwitting pollinators. If they arrive late in the afternoon, the insects may be held overnight and released in the morning with an extra-thick cargo of pollen. I am unclear as to whether or not the insects have a tasty corpse-flavored treat awaiting them at the bottom of the inflorescence. It might be the macabre analog of nectar, or the whole thing could be an intricate scam. I didn't really want to get close enough to investigate.

Of course, the name 'Voodoo Lily' is a bit of a slur. Voodoo (more properly Vodou) is a real, living religion that has no more to do with corpses than any other religion. But the popular notion of Voodoo has a life of its own, and D. vulgaris is not nearly as catchy a name.

Since first identifying this cluster of D. Vulgaris, I've gone on to see them in other places. They are interesting to look at, but I don't think I could reconcile the myself with the carcass scent. Personally, I'd rather have my garden smelling of Jasmine, Magnolia, and Gardenia. If I want rotting meat I can always take a walk in an alley.

[Real botany geeks might want to investigate website of The International Aroid Society. There you can find the straight dope about the genusDracunculus, articles about aroid pollination, and all the aroid-related stuff you can handle.]

Photo Credits: Michael McDevitt © 2008


Hungry Hyaena said...

Fantastic, Michael.

Thanks for the research. I appreciated folks who spot something in their day-to-day life and elect to research it. Three cheers!

I'm also fond of "Dumb cane"; it's plainly attractive and remarkably durable. Two Diffenbachia sp. call my apartment home at present. (But only when they feel like talking.) I'll be damned if I can confirm the particular species; the popular plant has been bred and cross-bred so many times over that visual identification is all but impossible.

Michael said...

Yeah. I have a sad little dumb cane that was neglected over the Christmas holidays. It died back to a little nub, but I refused to give up. The little nub was green, so I kept it relatively dry and gave it sun. It sat for nearly 5 months looking inert and mostly dead. Lo and behold it now sports new leaves. I love a plant that can take a little neglect.

Thisbe said...

I learned recently from a reliable source that the flies ARE, in fact, rewarded with a tasty treat (though I am not sure whether it is corpse-flavored) when they are trapped in the lily. Now I, at least, feel much better about the whole scenario.

Jenny Kendler said...

Oh, I love aroids. I have been drawing some versions of them lately (fabricated ones of no specific species) as part of these lush tableaus I have been working on. Don't you think that the words 'spadix' and 'spathe' are just lovely?

Michael said...

It's nice to know that it's not a scam-- or at least only a bit of one. I suppose I can't get too mad about anything if there's a good meal in it for me.

So many scientific words are absolutely lovely. I'm especially fond of binomial nomenclature. Some people have tried to tell me that latin names are stuffy and clinical, but c'mon-- Liriodendron tulipifera, Albizia julibrissin, Pica pica. So pretty and so apt.