On display now prominently in Selby Garden’s tropical Conservatory is a magnificent specimen of Tacca integrifolia ‘Nivea’, the haunting white bat flower from Southeast Asia. Found in the understory of steamy rainforest habitats, this species boasts one of the most outlandish inflorescences (a group of flowers) in the plant kingdom. Clusters of purple-black flowers are protected by hovering bat-wing bracts, and are adorned with 12” long whisker-like filaments. This bizarre presentation has given rise to a number of spooky names for this plant, including devil flower and tiger’s whiskers. In fact, it is reputed to be feared by native Malaysians who believe that looking into the following “eyes” (flowers) of the devil flower will curse the observer!
The genus Tacca is relatively small with only ten species, some of which have become popular in cultivation for their glossy pleated foliage and stunning inflorescences. They require consistent rainforest conditions to thrive, and are best suited to a greenhouse. The Chinese, Thai, and other Asian cultures have recognized the medicinal properties of the Tacca rhizome (underground stem) and have used it to prepare traditional remedies for conditions as diverse as ulcers, high blood pressure, burns, diarrhea, and even as an aphrodisiac. A ghoulish feature of this plant’s biology is that its meat-colored flowers are a mimic for carrion, luring in flies and beetles as pollinators. Some species of bat flower even smell like a dead animal, using a similar strategy to the famous Amorphophallus titanum. Luckily for us, Tacca integrifolia, which was first described in the 1800’s, does not perfume the air with the stench of the dead.