Turkey's phallic voodoo lilly, by Tristan Rutherford
BrownBook, November 2015
Like any tough customer, the Dracunculus vulgaris has acquired numerous noms de plume. There’s snake plant, Indian turnip and stink lily, the latter explained by the plant’s wicked smell. Plus voodoo plant and black arum, monikers suggestive of its dark colour and mystical powers. Dragon nicknames are more common still. Try dragonwort, drakondia and dragon's tongue – the plant's flame-speckled leaf really does look like the mouth of a fire-breathing beast.
The names are not surprising. Even Dracunculus vulgaris’s first growth, the meaty stem, looks like a vampire’s walking stick. It tapers up to 2m in height. This man-sized cane is raggedy, jaggedy and slashed with black and purple. Just wait a few years for it to flower. The baton below supports a vast mouth-shaped spathe. It’s up to 60cm wide, large enough to fit your head into. This lobe-like outer leaf teases like a stuck-out tongue, warning of what’s to come.
What happens next colours the craggy moonscape of Southwest Anatolia each spring. In the drying riverbeds above Antalya and the greying gorges of the Taurus Mountains, Dracunculus vulgaris comes of age with an eerily masculine exhibition. According to one commentator it’s “a curiously unsettling floral display”. In the gathering heat, a jet-black appendage, known as a spadix, emerges from the plant's centre. Stretching up to a metre, it stands erect and bedecked with seeds ready for pollination. Not for nothing is Dracunculus vulgaris also nicknamed the Viagra lily.
This protrusion is actually an inflorescence. It's not a single flower but a cluster ripe for plucking. There are rows of male flowers on the top, with female flowers on the bottom. This being Dracunculus vulgaris, it allures not with sugar but with spite. Instead of tempting bees, the plant emits a putrid whiff of rotting flesh to attract swarms of flies and beetles. It’s a once-smelled, never-forgotten stench.
During pollination, each curious insect slides down the shiny spathe. They become trapped for hours, unable to climb up the plant’s slippery sides. Stigmas dust each one with powders of pollen. Then the spathe trembles and withers, having done its procreational duty, and the insects are released to pollinate another stinky plant across the valley. Finally, the entire spadix shrivels to release further seeds to be carried far and wide by water, man and beast.
During this indecorous display, other fascinating factors are at work. The Dracunculus vulgaris is a dashing plant – one found in botanical gardens from Missouri to Manila – and it has developed an in-built defence mechanism to warn off rivals. The toxic roots disavow birds and small mammals looking for a juicy meal in such arid climes. It’s toxic enough for Britain’s Horticultural Trades Association to place Dracunculus vulgaris on its list of Potentially Dangerous Plants. This compendium of vegetable terror was compiled with London’s famed Guy's & St Thomas' Poisons Unit.
Such a steely plant has spawned a dozen myths. The poisonous roots are supposed to repel Anatolia’s serpents, including the occasionally ferocious whipsnake and venomous blunt-nosed viper. Carrying the roots onboard ship is also through to repel sea serpents – handy to know next time you’re anchored in a gullet off Bodrum. Some even believe that washing your hands in a liqueur made from Dracunculus vulgaris will allow one to handle the deadliest of snakes.
Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford have written six books about Turkey.