I like to write articles containing handy gardening tips, secrets, and general botanical and horticultural nerdiness.
Looking for a great, easy-to-grow native plant that can be used as in a tropical-style garden? Look no further than the Cunjevoi Lily, Alocasia brisbanensis. They make great structural feature plants, especially when planted around water features in tropical gardens. Plant them into a damp spot in the garden that receives at most only filtered sunlight for best results.
The Cunjevoi Lily goes by several other common names; they are sometimes called the Spoon Lily due to the spoon shape of the spathe that surrounds the flower inflorescence. Another name is the Native Elephant Ear, a reference how the shape, size and texture of the leaves resemble an ear of a big, old African elephant bull. The common name Elephant‘s Ear is also used for many other species of the Alocasia genus, as well as the related Colocasia genus.
Alocasia brisbanensis natively occurs in warmer coastal and inland-coastal areas north from the Illawarra region just south of Sydney in New South Wales all the way up to far north Queensland. They can be found growing as an understory plant along rainforest margins and in riparian areas along waterways, especially in places where there is a gap in the canopy to allow light in.
Cunjevoi Lily Plants
Cunjevoi Lilies can grow quite large (around 2m in height) once they become established and have been growing for several years. The stem can reach 12cm in diameter and are covered in old leaf sheaths in older specimens. The leaves are a vibrant deep green colour and are glossy and thick. The size of the leaves is thought to be an adaptation to allow them to make maximum use of low levels of light filtering through the forest canopy. The leaf blade can grow up to 1m long and is positioned atop an erect, thick, channelled petiole that is often longer than the leaf itself. The leaves of Alocasia brisbanensis are an important host plant for the caterpillars of at least four species of Hawk Moth as well as the Crow Moth (Cruria donowani).
No parts of this plant should ever be eaten as all parts contain oxalates which will cause severe irritation, swelling and pain to the mouth. Cunjevoi Lily has even been responsible for the death of toddlers who have mistakenly eaten it in the past. Likewise, you should definitely avoid planting Cunjevoi Lily in gardens where curious pets (especially dogs) may be tempted to give it a chew.
Despite the toxicity of Alocasia brisbanensis, there are reports of aboriginal people eating the side shoots of the rhizomes after extensive preparation, said to involve soaking for weeks and roasting many times to reduce toxins. This isn’t a process easily achievable at home and with potentially deadly consequences, it’s certainly not recommended. The leaves were also reportedly crushed and used as a fish poison.
It’s widely thought that the sap contained within the cunjevoi leaf stems when rubbed into the skin acts as an antidote to the stinging hairs of the Giant Stinging Tree (Dendrocnide excelsa), found in the same areas where Cunjevoi grows. There is, however, little evidence of its effectiveness, especially in treating severe stings, and the oxalates in the sap may even cause further severe irritation. If any of the sap gets in the eyes of the patient, it will also cause severe irritation.
Cunjevoi Lily Flowers
The small cream-coloured flowers are tightly packed along on a thick, 20cm long spike (spadix) which is surrounding by a leafy, green spathe that turns yellow as it ages. The half of the flowers closest to the tip are male while the half closer to the base are female, it’s easy to tell them apart as they have a different appearance. The flowers are highly fragrant with a scent reminiscent of rose. Cunjevoi Lilies flower mainly during early summer.
The fruits of Cunjevoi Lily are small (averaging 7mm in length), bright red berries, which occur clustered around the lower half of the inflorescence spike. One fruit forms from each female flower, leaving the top part of the spike distinctively bare when the male flowers dry and fall off. The fruits occur from late summer to late autumn. Each fruit contains one or two seeds which are almost as long as the whole fruit. Although the fruits smell sweet, they should never be eaten as like the leaves they contain oxalates which are poisonous and will cause swelling and pain if eaten.
The fruits are an important food source for several native birds which don’t seem bothered by the oxalates. Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii) and Victoria’s Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) are two species which have been observed feeding on the fruits. Confusingly, the Victoria’s Riflebird is actually named after Queen Victoria and not the South-Eastern Australian State, also named after the monarch, where neither the Cunjevoi Lily or Victoria’s Riflebird naturally occur. Cunjevoi Lily has however naturalised in some areas of both Victoria as well as in Western Australia where it’s considered a minor environmental weed. It has also naturalised in New Zealand.
Growing Cunjevoi Lilies
If you live in an area that receives frosts, the old Cunjevoi Lily leaves will be damaged during winter, but new leaves will grow to replace them once the weather warms up and the damaged leaves can be simply pruned off. If planting Cunjevoi Lily in frost susceptible areas, make sure to do so during spring after the last chance of frost has passed so that the young plants will have sufficient time to become established and have the best chance of surviving the following winter.
Propagation of Cunjevoi Lily can be done using seed, which can be found ready to be collected on the plant from late summer to mid-autumn, or from division of the underground rhizomes.
Cunjevoi Lilies are readily available at native plant nurseries in areas where they occur naturally for an extremely low cost, often only a couple of dollars per plant. Remember to never remove native plants from the wild, the fines involved if caught can be astronomical.
Pegetty on August 13, 2019:
A very informative article, especially since I live in UK. Thank you.
Marlene Pink on January 08, 2019:
I just want to update you re the effectiveness of this plant to treat stings. My father used it on me as a child to treat bluebottle stings. He tore off a piece of leaf and placed it shiny side up on an electric hotplate. When it blistered he placed it blistered side down onto my stings. Instant and permanent complete pain relief.
In the light of the current spate of blue bottles along the coast it would be a useful plant to grow around SLSCs.