One summer, when I worked for a small-town newspaper here in West Virginia, Don and Willalea Kelley invited me to their home to cover what Don calls his “stinking plant.” Don, a board member at the local senior center, is especially proud of his blueberry bushes and also, apparently, of his exotic lilies. His stinking plant, he told me, is commonly called “The Sacred Lily of India,” but it is also known as “Rattlesnake Plant,” “Devil’s Tongue,” “Corpse Flower,” “VooDoo Lily” or “Stink Plant.” The actual scientific name is Amorphophallus rivieri.
Before arriving to report on it, I did some research. Amorphophallus rivieri is a tropical perennial, which typically grows two- to three-feet tall into a top spurt of leafy branches that make it look like a small palm tree. Every now and then, it blooms a single flower. This fleshy flower has splotches similar to age spots on its stem, which rises into a huge cowl (called a spathe) that looks like an upright funnel. Then a phallic columnar pillar (the spadix) pokes out of the spathe and extends embarrassingly skywards for one to three feet. It has a reputation for smelling foul, thus the nicknames.
I visited the Kelleys’ home in early June. Don was proudly waiting in his front yard. In a brick-lined flowerbed outside their picture window stood a two-foot-tall, blood-purple stem that opened into a large, thick, waxy funnel with an eight-inch, ahem, protrusion emerging from its center. It was both beautiful and haunting, blatantly out of place in this quaint front yard. But there it was: an exotic, erotic monument, a phallic point of pride I was now assigned to share with our entire community.
There were several smaller samples of the plant in the front flowerbed, most of them in their leafy palm-like stage. A slight breeze occasionally wafted a rank sniff—like passed gas—across the yard to where I stood. It seemed of little consequence at the time. When I zoomed in on the plant with my camera, I saw a fly land upon the skin-like edge of the funnel and took the photo. I thought the name “Sacred Lily of India” was most poetic, and in my mind assigned that name to the title of my story.
That fall when Don was preparing to dig the bulbs up for winter storage, he asked me if I would like to have a few of these special plants. “Yes!” I said—and arrived the same day. He gave me a whole produce box full of bulbs, ranging from one to nearly six inches across, way more than I’d ever want to plant.
But—Oh, the cleverness of me!—another use for them quickly came to mind.
At Christmas, I am prone to give gift baskets. I fill them with home-canned jellies, relishes, sauces, whatnot—and then toss in some candy canes, dried herbs, votive candles, or other things to customize the basket. Well…this plant was unique and interesting…uncommon and long-lasting…and something my friends and I could giggle about for years to come! So that Christmas all my gardening friends got Amorphophallus rivieri bulbs in their gift baskets, each wrapped in tissue paper with a curly ribbon and topped with a card saying, “Sacred Lily of India: Put in a cool, dry place until spring.”
I put mine under the kitchen sink.
At the Town Council meeting that February, Don asked how my bulbs were doing. Still tickled at my resourcefulness, I proudly told him how I had shared them in special gifts. That sparked a twinkle in his eye, and that caused me to wonder on the way home, “Why did Don ask me about them? I won’t even touch the things again ‘til late March or April.”
At least that’s what I thought.
My neighbor Becky was the first to call.
“Uh, Lisa?” She asked, sounding a bit foreboding.
“Yeah?” I responded tentatively.
“You know that plant thing you gave me?”
“Uh-huh…” I replied, hoping her dog hadn’t eaten it.
“Well, we put it in the closet at Christmas, and…well, it’s growing.”
Relieved, I told Becky her closet simply wasn’t cool and dry enough and that she should move it somewhere else.
Then I came home one day, and Frank was working under the kitchen sink.
“You might want to do something with these things,” he said.
I guess my sink cabinet wasn’t “cool and dry” enough, either. Five lilies had begun growing in it. One fleshy stem had grown in a serpentine fashion up to the bottom of the sink bowl, turned at a right angle towards the back, then turned again to run straight up along the wall. Another had wormed out sideways, through the handle hole of the box I had them in. Another was cockeyed and had grown in among the plumbing.
I put them in pots in the corner of a basement room where there’s a constant draft. They continued to grow—inches a day.
Later that week, my friend Judy called me at work.
“Okay, so here’s the thing,” she said. (Judy’s the straight-to-the-point type.) “That thing you gave me is growing.” I advised her to do what I had done. Put it in a pot—with or without dirt—in a cool place, and wait until spring.
That night, I came home from work and Frank was cleaning out the refrigerator.
“Something in here is rotten,” he said. Knowing our refrigerator, I assumed he was right. But the smell was still there when he’d finished cleaning—and the little light bulb above my head came on.
“I bet it’s those plants!” I said, heading to the basement room to sniff. I got halfway there when a stench hit me like a baseball bat—and the plants weren’t yet in full bloom!
“Oh! Ugh! Oh!” I cried, reeling back.
“Put them outside!” Frank insisted.
“I can’t! It’s too cold!” I responded.
Frank stomped off, muttering under his breath.
Gagging, I moved the plants one by one into the laundry room—the least-used room in the house. A room, however, that is by no means cool or dry. There the stink plants flourished and bloomed in full force. Within a day, their aroma reached the neighboring bathroom.
Frank tried again. “Lisa, those plants! You can’t leave them in there. They have to go outside! How about the outbuilding?”
“I can’t. They’ll turn to mush,” I said. “Spring’s coming, I’ll spray some Lysol.” As I sprayed, I made a mental note to contact the people I’d given plants to—but I couldn’t actually recall who they all were.
By evening, the stench reached the kitchen, and Frank’s mutterings were getting worse. I tried to ignore him, but his murmurs made me think of my friends, searching their homes for the source of a rancid smell and cursing my name when they discovered it.
Worn down by the stench and my husband, I admitted what needed to be done, even though I feared it could affect the plants’ reproduction. “Don said that they don’t stink so bad if you cut the middle stamen out.”
Frank had a knife in his hands in seconds.
The circumcisions helped a little. But it was too cold outside to air the house out for very long, so a rancid, musky scent still lingered the following morning when company arrived.
“Somethin’ die in here?” Kenny asked while he poured his coffee, looking at me from under the brim of his greasy ball cap.
Frank exploded, cursing the things he puts up with from his wife, while Kenny giggled over his coffee, pleased with his talent for hitting just the right button. Yes, Amorphophallus rivieri is known by many names, and that morning, Frank came up with a new one.
I’d rather not repeat it here.
Only two of the bulbs Don gave me were planted come spring. The rest, placed outside in the cold too early, turned into mush. Those two grew into their unscented palm-tree stage. But I didn’t dare bring them in for winter, and they died. All my friends’ exotic lilies died, as well. None of them seemed too upset by the loss.
And I noticed that every one of them sniffed my Christmas present this year—before they thanked me for it. ❖