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Originally published Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 6:34 AM

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Q&A: A beautiful, stinky intruder; pesky horsetail

Garden writer Ciscoe Morris on the exotic Dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, which emits a horrible scent to attract pollinating insects, and on the difficult task of getting rid of the insidious weed known as horsetail.

Special to The Seattle Times

Gardening Events

Ciscoe’s Picks

Vashon Island Garden Tour: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 21-22. Five gardens, live music, lectures, shopping; $25 (206-463-5131 or

Jamie Durie: Host of HGTV’s “The Outdoor Room,” 1 p.m. June 21, Windmill Garden, 5823 160th Ave. E., Sumner; $20, register in advance (

Northwest Seattle Estate Garden Tour: 1-4:30 p.m. June 22. Three historic estate gardens in The Highlands neighborhood of Seattle, refreshments served in the final garden; $100, proceeds benefit the Dunn Gardens, register in advance (206-362-0933 or


In the Garden

Q: A weird purple flower just appeared in my garden. It is like a big purple calla lily but it smells horrible. What is it?

A: The interesting plant that came up in your garden is Dracunculus vulgaris, commonly known as dragon lily. These relatively rare plants hail from Crete and other areas in the Mediterranean. Although they occasionally show up for sale at nurseries and plant sales, most folks simply discover them growing in their garden, having come up from a seed dropped by a bird or insect that feasted on the bright red berries. In my opinion, dragon lilies are highly attractive plants that warrant a spot in the garden. Reaching 4 feet tall, the mottled stems resemble snake skin, while the heavily divided leaves give the plant a tropical air. The 18-inch, sinisterly beautiful, dark purple hooded flower can only be described as magnificent. Spectacular as the flower is, the coolest feature of this mysterious plant has to be the truly disgusting fragrance emitted to attract flies for pollination purposes. If you didn’t know the source of the nauseous odor, you’d be convinced that a big cow died and was rotting in your backyard. That particular attribute lasts only one day, but unfortunately, you’ll experience it again next year. These plants are hardy to minus-20 degrees and thrive with practically no care. For extra fun, invite your friends to a dragon-lily blooming party. It’ll be one gardening experience they won’t soon forget!

Q: Are there any nonchemical ways to eliminate horsetail?

A: After battling horsetail for 24 years as grounds director at Seattle University, I can assure you that there isn’t a silver bullet to rid your garden of this insidious weed. We tried everything. One winter, one of my frustrated gardeners dug all of the soil 3 feet deep from an isolated bed that was inundated with horsetail. Then he ran all of the soil through a screen to remove any horsetail roots before putting it back in the bed. The following spring the horsetail came back stronger than ever. We also tried sheet mulching by covering horsetail-infested areas with cardboard and a thick layer of woody mulch. Since horsetail even comes up through blacktop, imagine how quickly it works its way through cardboard. We also tried spraying horsetail with vinegar. Note that vinegar kills practically any plant it hits, so only use this method where there are no valued plants. The vinegar turned the horsetail brown and knocked it back, but it didn’t kill it! Finally, since horsetail is known to prefer areas with low nutrition in the soil and supposedly will die out in areas with high nutrient levels, we applied extra fertilizer in our problem areas. The plants in the garden grew like crazy, but so did the horsetail. The only successful strategy we ever came up with was to hide the horsetail by planting thick covers of tall growing perennials and evergreen shrubs such as rock rose (Cistus), honeysuckle (Lonicera) and rosemary (Rosmarius). Even where it was totally covered by plants, the horsetail survived; however, it was basically hidden, which is about the best you can do when it comes to this vigorous weed.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING 5.

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