Little Lawn of Horrors: Mystery plant spooks homeowner

Imagine Sarah Ramsey’s surprise when she stepped out the front door of her St. Albans home to find a monster lurking in the bushes beside the door. Was she scared? No. Was she bewildered? You bet!

The monster wasn’t a creature from folklore or an animal ready to attack. It was a giant, unexpected and odd plant. A plant she had never seen before. A plant that was quite unusual.

Ms. Ramsey appears with her mysterious flower.

What Ms. Ramsey saw that day was a plant that isn’t common in gardens here. In fact, many people think they can’t even grow here — but they can. The plant lurking in the bushes was not a whole plant at all, but just one solitary flower — a solitary flower that was five feet tall!!! If you’re thinking this all sounds a little like the giant man-eating plant Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” I wouldn’t blame you. Of course, you can be assured that plant poses no danger. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Luckily, Sarah knew a master gardener who helped identify the plant (with the help of a Facebook plant identification group called Plant Idents) and then got her in touch with me.

Sarah’s plant is called a Voodoo Lily (Amorphophallus konjac). Native to subtropical Asia, it isn’t all that common in the United States. It is part of the Arum family and is related to plants you might know, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Peace Lily.

There are probably a few good reasons why the plant hasn’t caught on as a popular garden plant in the US. First, this flower is pollinated by flies. This means that instead of infusing the air with sweet fragrance, the flower infuses the air with a foul odor similar to that of rotting meat to attract its pollinators.

Not knowing this, Sarah initially thought that there was a dead animal somewhere in her yard. Luckily, it only lasts a few days, but it can be disconcerting nonetheless.

Second, the plant’s Latin name Amorphophallus is a descriptive term used to describe the flower’s large central spathe — it means “misshapen penis.” After seeing the plant, I tend to agree with this moniker. After the flower dies, a single leaf will emerge from the corm to harvest energy for the next year. If it is happy, it will produce offshoots that result in more plants.

The plant has lots of interesting uses. First, it is used as food in its native range. The corm it grows from can be sliced into noodle-like structures. Sometimes these are sold in the U.S. as gluten-free, calorie-free noodles. It can also be used to make a jelly that is often sold in little individual serving cups (you can find them at most Asian markets). It is the main ingredient in a weight-loss supplement you see advertised on TV all the time.

Perhaps what surprised Sarah the most is that she didn’t plant this monstrous flower. She’s lived in this house for a few years with her boyfriend, who inherited the house from his grandparents. If Sarah didn’t plant it, then who did? Odd plants from Southeast Asia just don’t appear out of nowhere.

Did someone plant it as a hoax? Did a bird drop a seed? Probably not. My theory is that the boyfriend’s grandparents planted it years ago, but because of poor planting or the fact that it was overgrown with evergreen shrubs it just stayed dormant for a few years. Sometimes plants do that.

Of course, the family also doesn’t often use the door near where the plant was growing — so they could have missed it altogether for several years since it doesn’t last that long.

Thoroughly bewildered, and perhaps disgusted, by the plant, Sarah wanted to find it a new home. I eagerly offered up my yard as a new home for the plant. I visited St. Albans last week and with the help of Randy Rader, the Master Gardener who helped identify the plant, I dug it up and relocated to my yard. I’m hoping that it will have many happy years of life in its new home.13241303_10104033243225299_5722249492610482236_n

Update:  Mystery solved.  After reading the story in the paper, the boyfriend’s grandmother called Sarah about the plant.  She wasn’t all to happy.  Turns out that she had the plant for years and loved it – and wants it back!  Oh well, I’ll have to find another misshapen penis somewhere else.

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