Things that Go Stink

In this week’s installment of nasty but cool botany, let us chat about plant zombies. No, I am not referring to the popular game, Plants vs. Zombies, but rather plants that smell nasty. There are a few odoriferous organisms capable of producing chlorophyll that attract the less savory side of the pollinator world by getting their stank on (as in dead, rotting meat).

First up, Stapelia or carrion flower, is a genus of forty some species in the milkweed family found primarily in tropical portions of southern Africa. The stems look like any old succulent, but stick around; the flowers pack a pleasant punch, if you are a fly. The reddish, white striped, five petalled flower resembles rotting meat, and draws a swarm of excited insects. Stapelia gigantea displays one of the largest flowers in the world, and some members of the genus are grown, where warm enough, as ground covers and house plants elsewhere. I used to coax people over to take a whiff as a great gag (sometimes literally). Try it some time.

Next up, we have the infamous corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). This is one of largest flowers in the world. It is a member of a group of plants known as Ariods, all of which display the unique spathe (petal) and spadix (spike). Some of the more common aroids you may know are peace lily or jack-in-the-pulpit. The flower, like carrion flower, gives off a wonderfully inviting scent, attracting dead meat lovers to come for a visit. Like its native cousin, Symplocarpus foetidus, or skunk cabbage, the flower uses a thermochemical reaction to heat up the situation, aiding in scent dispersal (Let’s start a campaign to get Yankee Candle to make this their next big seller.) Though A. titanium is a bit large, you can grow another species in the genus with an equally spooky name, Voodoo lily.

If large rotting flowers are not enough, how about the dead horse arum, Helicodiceros muscivorus. Another member of the aroid group, this beauty looks and smells like its namesake, even down to the simulated horse hair on the spadix. 

Lastly, not to be outdone, just in case you thought you were safe in your little temperate world in North America? Nope! North America, including Indiana, is home to a couple of species in the genus Smilax. Smilax ecirratta, or erect carrion flower, is a native woodland plant with small stinking flowers. You can find it growing companionably with poison ivy, tall bellflower and woodland fescue.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

*Featured image (corpse flower) courtesy of Meijer Botanical Gardens

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