Beautiful to look at — repulsive to smell. That’s the corpse flower.
Aptly named because of the putrid odor given off when it blooms, the Amorphophallus, or Voodoo Lily, recently opened at Dixon’s Florist & Wedding Center, 919 Ridge Road in Munster, thanks to the loving care given by Bob and Gail Dixon.
This 35-year old “mother bulb,” which measures 16 inches across and stands up in the pot about 1 foot, produces a single gigantic flower similar in shape to a calla lily that opens up like an umbrella.
It was a gift to Dixon that has kept on giving, inspiring plant-lovers across the Region with its exotic provenance.
“The corpse flower intrigues people. They’re interested in it, because it’s different,” Dixon said.
In fact, when the corpse flower blooms at the Chicago Botanical Garden, it’s big news, and people come from all over the area to witness the opening of the exotic plant, the florist said.
“I worked for NIPSCO, and I was reading the meter in the backyard of an 85-year-old man from Whiting. He asked if I’d like to take a bulb,” Bob Dixon said.
“The round, flattened bulbs are called voodoo babies. The babies grow on the mother bulb and are about the size of a thumb nail.”
An exotic flower
From that single maternal bulb have come thousands of voodoo babies that Dixon has given away over the years to the Munster Garden Club and to anyone interested in growing the plant. It takes about four years before the bulbs mature and bloom, Dixon said.
The bulbs grow “tremendously fast,” he said.
Native to Africa and Asia, the corpse flower is known in Indonesia as bunga bangkai, Dixon said.
“Bunga means flower, while bangkai can be translated as corpse, cadaver or carrion. That odor that’s similar to rotting meat attracts flies that pollinate the flowers,” he said.
Not unique to Munster
A smaller species of corpse flower is currently blooming at Taltree Arboretum and Gardens, 450 W. 100 N. in Valparaiso.
In late May, Reid plants the bulbs in pots of soil outside. To prevent these tropical plants from freezing, he moves them back into Taltree’s production greenhouse where they spend the winter away from visitors.
Unlike other corpse flowers that grow larger, this smaller species blooms every year, the horticulturist said, adding, “It sends up a giant leaf, then shrivels up and goes dormant.”
Flies love this plant, he said.
“The flies smell it and think it’s a dead animal rotting where they can lay their eggs,” Reid said. “But there’s nothing for them to lay their eggs on. But they do carry the pollen.”
Labor of love
It’s the tongue that emits the rotten smell.
“As soon as it blooms, I cut out the tongue and take it out of the store immediately,” Munster's Dixon said.
The Dixons grow the corpse flower in abundance at their Hammond home, planting the bulbs in whiskey barrels or in pots with 20 or 30 bulbs per pot. The result looks like a jungle.
“They like partial sun and shade. We water them with rain water and water from our fish pond,” he said. “They never take fertilizer.”
In the winter, the Dixons bring the plants inside and put them in their basement to prevent freezing. But as spring weather reigns, Bob Dixon said he will bring the plants into the store.
“People just seem to love this plant,” he said with a smile.
*Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version. Taltree is a nonprofit organization.