Scents and Sensibilities - The Dragon Lily of Crete

Normal coloured Dracunculus vulgaris Dracunculus vulgaris is one evil-smelling but seriously spectacular beast. Its striking beauty can be a little shocking at first given its unpleasant smell but thankfully this only lasts a day or two. Like many of its close aroid relatives it relies on a foul strench to get its flowers pollinated. Flies and beetles, having been attracted to this malodorous invitation, enter the throat of the spathe and are promptly trapped and held captive for hours. In their ensuing attempts to escape these hapless creatures scramble around over the pistillate flowers dusting them with pollen from earlier traps.

This plant is known by many names, including Dragon Lily, Voodoo Lily and Stink Lily and is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean occurring in a variety of habitats, from stony wastelands to undisturbed olive groves. Even out of flower its dramatic habit and attractively marked leaves are an imposing presence but the size and shape of the flower lift it to even greater heights. As the influorescence unfurls it reveals a large, broadly arrowhead-shaped spathe varying in colour from reddish purple to almost black, enfolding a thick, tail-like spadix of the deepest black.

Dracunculus vulgaris is very common in Crete and found all over the island. In a few sites on the southern flanks of Mt Idi or Psiloritis a very special white form occurs along with an incredible range of marbled, stippled and mottled plants. After seeing the common dark form of dracunculus through out the rest of Greece it is a revelation to come across such extraordinary variety in one place.

Back in 2008 we discovered a large number of mostly white plants in a very grotty, stony gully used for penning sheep. It was strewn with the refuse of shepherding: discarded stockfeed bags, old tyres, rolls of wire and the dismembered limbs and heads of slaughtered animals. Needless to say the combined effects of decomposing flesh and the odor emanating from the dracunculus was rather overpowering but the sight of so many beautiful plants more than compensated.

Dracunculus Gorge  The refuse of shepherding  Dracunculus stipple and gold

Strictly speaking the white form is a very pale greeny cream. The flower has a velvety quality that strongly mimics that of plush chamois leather and when combined with the striking mix of inky black spadix and creamy white spathe the effect is breathtaking. Most  of the flowers we saw on that first visit were past their best, which was a little disappointing, but the sight of one of the Holy Grails of all bulbous plants was very exciting and a highlight of the trip.

When we returned in 2010 we found to our dismay the shepherd gates at the gully had been locked and were guarded with a very noisy dog. So we decided to explore an interesting track up the next gully and hit paydirt, dracunculus everywhere, ranging from greeny cream through to mottled purple. They were in peak flowering condition and this time we noticed that a few of the flowers had golden spadices. These incredibly beautiful individuals had such intense coloration that the whole flower appeared to take on a primrose glow.

There were very few "normal" coloured plants to be found in this population but a considerable number of gorgeously mottled and marbled ones. No two plants were the same with each one varying in the degree and intensity of their markings. Why this rich variation occurs in such a small and discrete part of this species' extensive range is a mystery. There appears to be no evolutionary explanation as to how white flowers confer an advantage or why intermediates also thrive there while everywhere else flower colour is uniformly purple to blackish purple. Recently another population of dracunculus have been discovered in Crete where the flowers have no unpleasant smell and this raises further questions regarding the interaction between Dracunculus vulgaris  and its potential pollinators. The situation would appear to be more complex than is currently presumed and there is more to be teased out before the full story is understood.

Dracunculus vulgaris almost white form Beautiful white and gold Dracunculus Dracunculus vulgaris beautiful spotted wine form

Our hostess at the hotel we were staying in was a very sweet girl on work exchange from Moldovia. She had told us that she was keen to explore the surrounding countryside but regrettably work commitments were always getting in the way. So we picked a couple of flowers to take back to show her and bring a little bit of the countryside back with us. We put them in the boot of the car to contain their feculent odour but even on the short drive back it had leaked most unwelcomly into the cabin and we were forced to open the windows.

Veronika was in the lobby of the hotel when we arrived and she came to greet us just as I was taking our evil beauties out of the boot. Upon seeing them her eyes widened with delight and she exclaimed, "Oh! They're so beautiful, like vonderful huge ice creams with shockolate sticks". Rather unwisely I swung the flowers towards her for a better look and before I could say stop she had sunk her nose into the throat of one of them and sniffed deeply. Her face instantly contorted into one of disgust, and recoiling quickly she hissed, "Oh sheet!" For a brief moment I could see our friendship had taken a backward step but being a true pro she quickly composed herself,  and smiling sweetly, said, "Thank you zo much for bringing to show me but I think we leave them outside".

Dracunculus vulgaris white gold  Dracunculus vulgaris white  Ice creams and chocolate sticks


How marvellous for you to see these in bloom, Marcus! I guess the only better thing would've been to be there at the right time for collecting seed! I hope you are able to introduce these "new" forms into cultivation. We are all eagerly awaiting your new seedlist having had our appetites whetted by a talk on Crocus by Otto and Viv at the last AGS Vic group meeting, cheers fermi

Hi Fermi,

To see these plants in the wild is breath-taking. There are almost surreal especially when viewed in such harsh un-promising surrounds.

I am sure the crocus presentation was well received. I would haved to have been there.

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the kind words. We were so disappointed the first time not to see the full range of colours but the last time was a knock out. And not just olfactorarily!

Cheers, M

Thank you for this entertaining account of your adventures to the land of the dragons Marcus. I've been growing the regular dark red form for about 6 years now and every year without fail my wife comes in saying, "I think there's something dead in the garden, have you been baiting rats?" I rush outside and swoon over the gorgeous (looking), supremely exotic blooms. The obvious question is, were you able to collect seeds and how many years until you'll have them for sale at Hillview!? Jamus

Hi Jamus,

Yes, I share your experience re the is it a dead animal ... ah no its the good old dracunc firing up. Thank God the smell only last a short time.!

Regrettably no seeds just pictures.

Cheers, Marcus

Like this aroid despite its odour. Interested to see the different colour forms. Would make great additions to the garden.

Hi Lesly,

It would be great to combine the not smelly trait with the coloured one. Now that would be a winner.

Cheers, M

Spectacular plants Marcus. Have you been able (or do you plan) to collect seed from this population?

Hi Ashley,

Regrettably no seed. As I said before only the pictures.

I seem to remember David Attenborough using these spectacular plants to demonstrate this particular type of "imprisonment" pollination.

Cheers, M

Hi Marcus. Stunning photographs. They are such ancient looking creatures. I wonder if the variation mightn't be due to a polyploid condition of one type or another. Do you know if the seed is viable?

Hi Jacqui,


Yes they are primeval.  I guess the name Dragon Lily fits perfectly.

These pictures are of self sustaining populations where the seed is fertile.  In the first population about 10% are normal coloured while in another it is slightly higher with more mottled plants. I guess polyploidy could affect complex gene regulation processes. Wouldn't one expect other changes in gene expression?

Whatever the reason the plants are  magnificent and I am considering basing part of a tour around them.


Cheers, and glad you like the photos. 


Cheers,  M

Yes, it's a little like the Darwinian Galapagos experience over again, isn't it. I am way out of my depth when it comes to genetics Marcus but, as you infer, polyploidy can be associated with changes in gene expression or regulation and consequently affect appearance. It was just the idea that no two were the same that made me wonder.

Hi Jacqui,

I only did undergraduate genetics so so am I!

There are a lot of similar plants. I just wanted to show a fuller range. Lovd the wine coloured one.

It would seem that flower colour is not the important evolutionary driver and while this population remains isolated the gene abnormality will persist as a lovely accident.

I think the non-smelly population represents the far bigger intellectual challenge to explain. Scent is the key driver so whats going on there?

Cheers, M

Fantastic Marcus thanks for the article did you find a population of non smelly dracunculas? I have seedlings now I expect a wait of 7 years is that about it? Cheers Mick ando

Hi Mick, thankx!

No never did get there just too many places to go.

I will however do a post on Kedros soon. I am no expert but the range of orchids there has to be seen to be believed.

Cheers, M

It must be wonderful to encounter these plants in the wild and see just where they thrive, I'm very envious. I had no idea there were so many colour variations Love Viv

Hi Viv,

I too had no idea until I saw some images on David Attenborough's Secret Life of Plants. Then I saw them in John Fielding's and Nicholas Turland massive and magnificent Flora of Crete. I am sure you will be interested in the wonderful range of orchids we encountered not far away from this site. I'll try and get my act together and post soon.

Cheers,  M

Marcus, your memory has temporarily let you down - Attenborough's was the private life of plants; a secret life would take one to an altogether different place. Lovely photos.

Hi Rob,

I stand corrected! Thanks, he has done so many series now I have lost track of them!

I loved an episode way back when he sat down next to some Mountain Gorillas and one of them gave him a hug.

Its easy to get good photos when one has such a magnificent subject.

Cheers,  Marcus