Rotten Botany-Stinky Wonders of the Plant World

Corpse Flower in full bloom
Corpse Flower in full bloom

Blooming flowers brings to mind sweet-smelling blooms, not repulsive odors, but there are quite a few flowers that fall into the later category. Carrion flowers, also known as corpse flowers or stinking flowers, emit odors that smell like rotting flesh. The blossoms attract mostly scavenging flies and beetle as pollinators. So even the pollinators are odd and different. The flowers may even trap the insects temporarily to ensure the transfer of pollen. Attracting beetles, flies, and other pollinators is the purpose of the decaying flesh odor and without fail, the flowers are interesting and beautiful in their own unique way.

Bud of the Titan Arum
Bud of the Titan Arum

Titan Arum

The Titan Arum, Amorphophalus titanum, has a massive bell-shaped flower almost 9 feet in height, on record as the tallest flower in the world.   During bloom, the tip of the spadix which is the long structure emerging from the center, is around 98 degrees F, which helps the perfume disperse, which in turns attracts carcass-eating insects. According to Wikipedia, “Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid(sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol(sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces)”. Quite a mix!

Titan Arum, from Wikipedia
Titan Arum, from Wikipedia

After flowering, a single shoot emerges in the place of the blossom, which is the size of a small tree, standing up to 30 feet tall and 15 feet across. The plant grows from a corm (like a bulb) which weighs up to 150 pounds and is native to the equatorial rain forests of  Sumatra. Imagine encountering this plant in the wild!

Growing for 7 to 10 years, before blooming for just 3 days, the flower will open quickly when it is ready, about 3 inches per half hour. Sought after by botanical gardens around the world because of the numbers of visitors flocking to see it, the flower is incredible in person. I had the opportunity to see it first hand at the Floral Showcase in Niagara Falls last summer and was blown away by the sheer size of the bud.

Closed bud of Arum Titan at Toronto Floral Showcase
Closed bud of Arum Titan at Toronto Floral Showcase

Stapelia

Stapelias are also known as carrion flowers and are small, spineless, cactus-like succulent plants. Usually grown as potted plants, the flowers are hairy and generate the odor of rotten flesh. The color of the flowers also mimics rotting meat, which again attracts flies and beetles-no surprise there! The flowers in some species are quite large, notably Stapelia gigantea which can reach 12 inches in diameter.

I have grown these for years as houseplants and the flies flock to the flowers when open and they really do stink with a foul odor.

Stinky Stapelia is a succulent
Stinky Stapelia is a succulent

Dutchman’s Pipe

Dutchman's Pipe
Dutchman’s Pipe

If you are looking for a striking vining plant, try a Dutchman’s Pipe or Pelican Flower (Aristolochia macrophylla) or Pipe Vine. The plant is a woody vine that produces flowers shaped like curved pipes and large heart-shaped leaves hardy to zones 8 to 10. Again, the flowers attract pollinating flies with their foul odor and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Usually growing 10 to 15 feet long, you need a trellis or other support. The large heart-shaped leaves alternate along a woody stem. Tinged a plum color with speckles, the flowers appear in late spring and early summer.

The flower uses an ingenious way for pollinators, usually flies, to enter and prevents the flies from exiting until the pollen actually has been released within the base of the flower. See this great video by Janet Draper, Smithsonian horticulturist explaining the mechanism.

Once used as an aid to childbirth because of its resemblance to a human fetus the appearance has led to another of the vine’s names, birthwort. Aristolochia  is a potent carcinogen and kidney toxin, so the plant is very toxic. But because of this property, the pipe vine is a host plant for many butterfly species, including the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, thus making themselves unpalatable to most predators.

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Dutchman’s Pipe growing in greenhouse

Plant Geek Alert

Dutchman's Pipe Vine
Dutchman’s Pipe Vine

 5 Bizarre Plant Favorites

Little Shop of Horrors plant
Little Shop of Horrors plant

You know the saying “a face only a mother would love”? Keep that in mind when you gaze on some of these unusual and sometimes scary plants. As a confirmed ‘plant geek’, I love to discover the more interesting plant varieties out there, kind of like A Little Shop of Horrors! Here are some of my favorites:

Aristolochia gigantica, also called Giant Dutchman’s Pipe or Giant Pelican Flower

This Dutchman's Pipe is blooming inside of a greenhouse in October
This Dutchman’s Pipe is blooming inside of a greenhouse in October

This is an easy to grow vine and very vigorous. While officially hardy to zone 10 and warmer, it will take a few frosts. technically,  it is safe to 27f. You could grow it in a large pot outside in the summer and bring it into a light window for the winter after cutting it back a bit. In the warm months it will reward you with a constant supply of the huge, unusual blooms with great colors.

Another type which looks like Darth Vader!
Another type which looks like Darth Vader!
''Aristolochia californica (Dutchman's pipe)
”Aristolochia californica (Dutchman’s pipe) (Photo credit: Wikipedia) You can see how it got it’s name!

Each flower has one day in which it smells like a lemon! While it isn’t overpowering, with so many flowers in blooms at once, it is always noticed when walking by. Down south it may be safely grown outdoors in the ground where it will bloom much longer.

IMG_4314
Bed of Nails spikes are very sharp!

Solanum quitoense, Bed of Nails

Bed of Nails is a fuzzy-leaved tropical relative that brandishes wicked purple spikes along its stems and leaf veins. Easy to grow, it is very effective in plant combinations with purple accents. It takes up a lot of room and by the end of the summer, you might end up with just that in the container, as it will take over. I have had my plant set fruit, which are orange and fuzzy and I understand that they make a tropical drink from it. Collect seeds from the fruit for a new plant the next season(one is enough for me), as it can get 4 feet around in one season. The bloom is not spectacular and you would only grow it for its beautiful and dangerous foliage.

Bed of Nails
Bed of Nails

Stapelia pulchellas, or Starfish Plant

Stapelia
Stapelia

According to Wikipedia, “The genus Stapelia consists of around 40 species of low-growing, spineless, stem succulent plants, predominantly from South Africa. The flowers of certain species, most notably Stapelia gigantea, can reach 41 cm (16 inches) in diameter when fully open. Most Stapelia flowers are visibly hairy and generate the odour of rotten flesh; a notable exception is the sweetly-scented Stapelia flavopurpurea. Such odours serve to attract various specialist pollinators including, in the case of carrion-scented blooms, blow flies of the dipteran family Calliphoridae. They frequently lay eggs around the coronae of Stapelia flowers, convinced by the plants’ deception”.

A potted specimen
A potted specimen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whew! That just said that the odd-looking flowers resemble rotting meat and smell like rotten meat!

Stapelia are good container plants and can grow well under full sun and light to moderate watering. They should be planted in well-drained compost as the stems are prone to rotting if kept moist for long. Stapelias are succulents so they like to be kept on the dry side.

Stapelia gigantia
Stapelia gigantia
English: Stapelia gigantea Español: Stapelia g...
English: Stapelia gigantea Español: Stapelia gigantea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When my Stapelia was in full bloom, the flies clustered around it! It was pretty amazing!

VooDoo  Lilyphoto, flikr user b-nik
VooDoo Lily
photo, flikr user b-nik

VooDoo Lily- Another Smelly but Bizarre Plant

This is a really bizarre selection that hails from the moist forests of India. Plant the bulb in the early spring and in summer, a beautifully mottled thick leaf stalk emerges and opens into a big hand shaped leaf to 2 or 3 feet wide. Then a chocolate phallic shaped flower protrudes from a pinkish sheathing cone, with the entire flower getting up to 18 inches or so. The “treat” is the organic scent of decaying meat which effectively attracts fly
pollinators. The smell doesn’t stay around for long though, and the leaves and
stems are quite ornamental. All goes dormant by the end of the summer or early
fall. Plant this one in shade and good soil. It is easily propagated by snapping off the baby bulblets that grow like warts in the leaf and leaflet axils.

Mandrakes

Mandrakes are the plants that were featured in Harry Potter. His crew had to learn how to handle them very carefully and grow them to maturity. The small plants would emit a scream that could put them out for a few hours and the mature plant could kill a human.  The root of the plant looks just like a gnarly human figure.

The root looks like an angry human!
The root looks like an angry human!
Mandrake plants at Harry Potter World - the root is supposed to look like a human and the scream of the root when pulled was supposed to kill a human!
Mandrake plants at Harry Potter World, the root is supposed to look like a human and the scream of the root when pulled was supposed to kill you!

In reality, the mandrake root contains hallucinogenic compounds that are extremely poisonous and the root is bifurcated and can resemble a human!

Mandrake root
Mandrake root

Mandrake or Mandragora belongs to the Nightshade family and has long been linked to superstition and witchcraft. It contains many toxic compounds and is rated by the US Food and Drug Administration as UNSAFE!

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