I visited the Singapore Botanic Gardens on Tuesday afternoon and I was greeted by a huge elephant foot yam plant (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius) that was flowering. The rather healthy specimen was planted inside a big black plastic container of compost and situated strategically right in the middle of the pavilion near the Botany Center.
The plant had three leaves, with one that was smaller and yellowing. The other two healthy and sturdier ones are rather pretty and the leaflets that emerge from each petiole may lead those who are unfamiliar with the plant to think that it is a papaya plant instead. The petioles are also beautifully mottled. The whole plant looks quite ornamental in a strange way.
The species of elephant yam that was featured is one that is the most common in Singapore. It is not one of those exotic species. The subterranean tubers of Amorphophallus paeoniifolius are rich in starch and can be bought from the shops in Little India locally. Nowadays, no one really grows the elephant yam in their backyards and I am sure those visitors to the Botanic Gardens, local or overseas, have been given a rare visual treat. I hope children gets a chance to view it as well since it is the school holidays now in Singapore.
Besides being known as a source of starch, the elephant foot yam is famous for another thing – its foul-smelling inflorescence. The specimen shown at the Botanic Gardens has a self-explanatory tag which I have taken a photograph as shown above. Instead of a sweet fragrance, the elephant food yam’s inflorescence when newly opened, smells of rotting flesh! I empathise with the staff of the Gardens who has been stationed at the nearby information counter over the past few days as they had to bear with the stench! Unfortunately, perhaps I had arrived a little too late and because the inflorescence has opened for some days already, I could not detect any smell from the inflorescence even in close range yesterday.
Finally, another thing to note is the obscene appearance of the spadix in the elephant foot yam’s inflorescence and this fact has been cast in stone via the genus name for this group of plants – Amorphophallus. In Greek, amorphos means “misshapen” while phallos refers to the male reproductive organ.
I have noticed that the meaning behind the genus name appears to be not too apparent to the many people that I have come across. Whenever I explained its meaning to them, their faces often turned a little red with embrassment.
I find the elephant foot yam is not an easy plant to grow. I have tried growing one by using a tuber which I bought. The plant dies down quite easy and seems to be quite fussy about the moisture of the substrate which it is grown in. It must be moist so that the plant does not get a chance to wilt and is better grown in a semi-shaded area. Soil that is over-watered or too wet due to wet weather will cause the tuber to rot, leading to the death of the plant.