Botanical Stinkers: Foul-Smelling Plants

Botanical Stinkers: Foul-Smelling Plants

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When you think about plants and flowers, you tend to imagine a beautiful, bright-smelling bouquet. But that’s not always the case. Did you know that some plants have a rotten smell? But while they might not be pleasing to human olfactory systems, these plants have a foul stench for a reason.

Why Do Some Plants Stink Like Decaying Matter?

Why do some plants stink like decaying matter?
Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

There are some plants that have a repulsive stink to humans. They’re often known as carrion plants or corpse plants because of their deathly odor. Typically, these strong smells are created thanks to chemical compounds and these may vary between plants and can include things like cadaverines, dimethyl sulfides, and isovaleric acid. Interestingly, however, these compounds are very low in quantity, with plants usually containing only 5-10 parts per billion. That just shows how strong they are.

There are around five plant families that have evolved this unusual trait, but it’s not just for the sake of it. In fact, while humans may hold their noses in terror when exposed to these plants, many animals are attracted to them.

This primarily applies to pollinators such as beetles and flies. These, and other scavengers find the smell of rotting flesh to be quite appealing and it tells them that a meal is afoot.

Bats are a common pollinator, and research has shown that they’re often attracted to plants with a garlicky scent.

Without these creatures, the plants would not be pollinated and would therefore be unable to reproduce. It might seem weird, but it’s another great example of how nature adapts to its surroundings and needs.

As well as having a ripe aroma, carrion flowers also have rather large and impressive blooms which add to their appeal. These flowers are often in colors that are attractive to pollinators, such as red, purple, and brown.

Thermogenesis in Carrion Flowers

Thermogenesis in carrion flowers
Toad Plant (Stapelia gigantea)

On top of their foul stench and impressive blooms, many carrion flowers are also capable of producing heat; like nature’s very own radiators. One of the reasons for this is that rotting flesh is typically warm, and these plants are able to mimic that through thermogenesis, making them more attractive to pollinators.

Different species of corpse flowers have varying abilities when it comes to producing heat but for all, it requires a lot of energy. However, the payoff for that energy expenditure is far greater in terms of pollination, so it’s a worthwhile process.

What’s even more interesting is that different species have different processes when it comes to attracting pollinators, which allows them to attract very specific insects. During research, Australian scientists discovered that one species, the Typhonium Angustilobum, attracted more than 1800 beetles, proving the effectiveness of this tactic. 

As these plants raise their temperature above that of the surrounding environment, scent molecules are more freely dispersed. The combination of scent and warmth is very attractive to potential pollinators. What’s more, many plants have adapted the ability to adjust their temperature at certain times of the day when their specific pollinators are more active. And it’s not just carrion flowers that behave this way, even the much-loved magnolia is able to produce its own heat to attract beetles.

So, how does this phenomenon work? Well, it’s all down to specialized thermogenic cells which are found in concentrated clusters in certain parts of the plant.

These cells perform a specific type of cell respiration, and when this takes place in the mitochondria, heat is produced as a secondary product.

Examples of Foul-Smelling Plants

Most carrion plants are native to southern Africa, but several species have now been naturalized in other parts of the world, primarily Australia. They’re actually a part of the succulent family and, at the time of writing, there are 44 known species. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting ones.

1. Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

As well as a potent odor, the titan arum also produces heat and coupled together, this serves as the perfect attraction to beetles which pollinate the flower.

Standing at more than 10 feet (3 meters), the Titan Arum is the biggest unbranched inflorescence on the planet. When people talk about the corpse flower, this is often the species they’re referring to thanks to the stink of rotting flesh produced when the Titan Arum blooms. Thankfully, this blooming period only lasts for a few days and then the stench is gone.

The Titan Arum is sadly endangered owing to habitat loss and a lack of natural pollination and now only grows in the Sumatran rainforests, although there are specimens grown in places like Kew Gardens to help with conservation. In fact, these stinky plants are often one of the main attractions at such locations.

As well as a potent odor, this species also produces heat and coupled together, this serves as the perfect attraction to beetles which pollinate the flower. Amazingly, studies have shown the surface of the plant reaching up to 96.8°F (36°C)!

2. Stinking Corpse Lily (Rafflesia arnoldii)

Like other carrion flower species, the stinking corpse lily boasts an impressive size and even lays claim to having the biggest individual flower of any species.

Like other carrion flower species, the stinking corpse lily boasts an impressive size and even lays claim to having the biggest individual flower of any species. Some specimens boast flowers with a diameter of 36 inches (91 cm), which serves as a serious attraction to carrion beetles and flies that pollinate the plant as they lay their eggs among the petals.

Of course, the smell of rotting flesh is also pretty impressive to these pollinators but interestingly, after months of budding, this stench is only released in a very short 1-3 day blooming period. The deep reddish-brown flowers typically spread low to the ground and aren’t supported by a root system, as this species is actually parasitic. This is a point of interest to researchers who are able to observe the species to understand more about plant adaptation.

While they may stink, people in the stinking corpse lily’s native countries of Sumatra and Borneo use the plant as an aphrodisiac and as a pregnancy supplement. Unfortunately, however, this species is under threat as a result of habitat loss. Things like deforestation could result in the ultimate extinction of this species.

3. Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)

The crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) has a scent similar to wet dogs and garlic, which become prominent during the spring blooming period.

The savvy among you may have already cottoned onto the fact that the crown imperial is not a species of carrion plant and may therefore wonder why I’ve included it. Well, it might not stink of rotten meat, but it does have a potent aroma that many people turn their noses up at.

This beautiful plant with striking green foliage and deep red flowers certainly looks the part and makes it a popular choice for gardens especially because of its height of up to 5 feet (1.5 meters). But don’t get too close! This species has a scent similar to wet dogs and garlic, which become prominent during the spring blooming period.

Unlike other species I’ve talked about, it’s thought that the crown imperial amps up the stench as a form of self-defense. This makes it a popular plant in gardens where predators like deer are a problem.

What’s more, the plant has long been used in ornamental gardens, and this historical significance makes it highly sought after. While native to Turkey and parts of the Middle East, the species has started to naturalize in some areas like the USA, Italy, and Austria, making it easier to include in the garden.

4. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

The unpleasant odor emitted by Ginkgo trees is attributed to the presence of butyric acid, a chemical compound also present in human sweat and certain types of hard cheeses.

Have you ever smelled a plant that reeks of vomit? It could be the gingko and while it has a potent aroma, it’s long been used in Chinese medicine as a herbal supplement and as a heart medicine. With very few evolutionary changes in the last 200 million years, the gingko is the only surviving species of its family and is often referred to as a living fossil.

These large trees can grow up to 80 feet (24 meters) in height and while stinky, they’re prized for use in ornamental gardens. This is not only due to their size but also their leaves which fan out beautifully and turn a rich golden color in fall.

Sometimes called maidenhair trees, the ginkgo is wind-pollinated and doesn’t tend to attract pests. Interestingly, it’s the females that produce that horrid aroma, and it comes from the fruit when it falls from the tree. The chemical compound responsible for this is butyric acid which is also found in human sweat and some hard cheeses. While it might smell, it’s super attractive to certain flies that feed on the fallen fruit.

5. White Bat Flower (Tacca integrifolia)

The smell of the white bat flower (Tacca integrifolia) is often likened to stinky socks or rotten fruit.

Found natively in Southeast Asia, the white bat flower is a plant that’s highly sought after in ornamental gardens around the world. This is largely because of its distinct and beautiful appearance with white flowers that feature ‘whiskers’ which tendrill down below the petals. It is this feature that makes the flowers look like bat wings and where the plant takes its name.

But while these flowers may look the part, the same can’t be said of their smell which is often likened to stinky socks or rotten fruit. Fortunately, this is a night-blooming species, so the smell isn’t that prominent during the day. For humans, it’s not pleasant but for pollinators like flies, it grabs attention. What’s more, small mammals and rodents are known to disperse the seeds from the fleshy fruits as they fall to the ground.

Natively, the white bat flower is found in the understory of tropical forests in regions such as Sumatra, Indonesia, and Bangladesh where it’s perfectly adapted for the low light conditions.

6. Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum)

Native to North America, the shasta daisy may be pretty, but get too close, and you’ll be treated to the foul stench of cat urine.

The shasta daisy is a low maintenance perennial plant that boasts showy flowers with white petals on long, deep green, leafy stems. It’s popular in gardens, especially where cover is needed, as these plants can spread up to 3 feet (0.9 meters).

Native to North America, the shasta daisy may be pretty, but get too close, and you’ll be treated to the foul stench of cat urine. It might be disgusting to humans, but it’s attractive to flies that pollinate these flowers. What’s more, that strong odor keeps predators at bay.

Shasta daisies are non-invasive, drought resistant to a degree, and help keep pests at bay, making them incredibly popular among gardeners. However, it is worth noting that they contain mild toxins, which can result in digestive upset in humans and pets.

7. Chinese Sumac (Ailanthus altissima)

Chinese sumac has a very unpleasant smell that’s said to resemble burned or rotten nuts.

Sometimes called the tree of heaven, Chinese sumac is an incredibly invasive plant species that is native to, you guessed it, China and also Taiwan. It’s not a common garden plant but is often found growing in urban areas where it can grow up to 80 feet (24 meters) in height!

Being invasive, it prevents native plants from thriving and does so by releasing allelopathic chemicals into the soil. This makes it difficult for other plants to get the nutrients they need while the rapidly adapting sumac reaps the benefits.

Chinese sumac does have an impressive appearance, but it also boasts a very unpleasant smell that’s said to resemble burned or rotten nuts. Unlike some other plants, the Chinese sumac stinks for almost the entire growing season. That said, there are certain points during its growth phase where the phytochemicals responsible for the smell are more potent.

If you were looking to grow this species, then the good news is that the potent aroma does keep pests and animals at bay. And it doesn’t matter that pollinators won’t bother with it since the Chinese sumac relies on wind pollination.

8. Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana)

The callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) has a repugnant aroma that is a result of chemicals like trimethylamine.

The Callery pear tree is certainly beautiful with widespread foliage and pretty, delicate white flowers, but don’t be fooled. These trees, which can grow up to 50 feet (15 meters), produce a stink during their blooming period which can be likened to that of rotten fish.

While the species is native to east Asia, it has been planted around the world but has quickly gained notoriety as an invasive species. This is thanks to its ability to outcompete native plants and its success in attracting pollinators like flies and beetles with its repugnant aroma that is a result of chemicals like trimethylamine.

However, while they are competitive, the Callery pear has a downfall; it’s prone to storm damage, especially the Bradford cultivar, which can result in the trees becoming deformed or irreparably damaged.

9. Toad Plant (Stapelia gigantea)

The toad plant emits a smelly, rotten flesh-like odor, which is most prominent during the blooming period.

Moving back to the carrion flowers, we meet the toad plant which is found in the dry regions of southern Africa. Somewhat smaller than other carrion plants, this species only grows to around 12 inches (30 cm) in height, although the flowers may have a diameter of up to 16 inches (41 cm).

Just like other members of its family, the toad plant emits a smelly, rotten flesh-like odor, which is most prominent during the blooming period. While it does smell for the whole flowering period, you’ll notice that the smell gets stronger as the day goes on, with the most potent aroma during the evening. It might be awful for humans, but this decaying scent attracts pollinators like flies and beetles which associate the scent with food, and this ensures the plant’s survival.

Pollinators are also attracted to the mottled, star-shaped flowers, which are certainly more attractive to humans than their scent. Since the species requires higher temperatures to survive, it’s not a common garden plant but can be grown under glass.

10. Dead Horse Arum Lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus)

The aroma on the dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus) is akin to rotting flesh
Annalise Falzon (Malta) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

With a name like dead horse arum lily, you probably don’t need me to tell you that this plant is a real stinker! As with other similar species, the aroma is akin to rotting flesh, but this serves as an attractant to pollinators like beetles and flies who see it as a food source and a place to lay their eggs. To further aid attraction, this species is also able to produce its own heat though thermogenesis

You’ll find the dead horse arum lily in parts of the Mediterranean such as Italy, Spain, and the Balearic Islands but it’s also a popular choice in botanical gardens because, despite its smell, the flowers with their red to purple hue and unique shape are certainly beautiful.

As with other carrion plants, this species smells when it is blooming, and it’s actually sulfur that’s responsible for the stench as well as chemical compounds like ammonia. While gross, this is another perfect example of mimicry in nature for the benefit of the species performing it.

11. Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

The eastern skunk cabbage utilizes its scent to attract some of the first flies in spring, which then act as pollinators.

We know that skunks produce a defensive smell, and they do this through glands in their behinds. But they’re not the only ones to produce this foul scent reminiscent of rotting flesh, and the eastern skunk cabbage smells very similar, hence its name. 

Found in wetlands across North America, the eastern skunk plant is a relatively small species, growing between 12 and 24 inches (30 and 61 cm) in height. Thick, cabbage-like leaves surround a purplish spadix, which is what’s responsible for that nasty aroma, that and chemicals like dimethyl sulfide.

As one of the first plants to flower, even while there’s still snow on the ground, it utilizes its scent to attract some of the first flies in spring, which then act as pollinators. Not only does the smell draw them in, but the plant’s ability to produce its own heat also helps. What’s more, this heat helps the plant to survive colder conditions and it manages to maintain a consistent temperature between 60.8 to 75°F (16 to 24°C) regardless of its surroundings. 

12. Vampire Lily (Dracunculus vulgaris)

The vampire lily is well known for its rotten scent which is a result of a chemical compound known as dimethyl trisulfide.

Sometimes called the dragon arum, the vampire lily is well known for its rotten scent which is a result of a chemical compound known as dimethyl trisulfide. Ammonia also plays a role and helps the plant to mimic rotting flesh, which serves as a way of attracting carrion beetles and flies for pollination.

Found natively in Greece and the Balkans, this may be a stinky species, but where looks are concerned, its royal purple flowers are a sight for sore eyes. A central spadix is surrounded by a hooded spathe and this appearance is what makes it a popular choice in gardens.

As with most carrion flowers, the vampire lily emits its scent during the flowering period, which ensures effective and efficient pollination. Thankfully, they only have a blooming period of one day so, if you can hold your nose, this rare sight is definitely worth it.

13. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis

Hailed as the world’s worst smelling orchid, the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis has been said to smell like dirty socks or dead rats.
C T Johansson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Hailed as the world’s worst smelling orchid, the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis has been said to smell like dirty socks or dead rats.

As is the case with most carrion flowers, the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis emits its vile scent to attract carrion flies, which it relies on for pollination. Although it is native to Papua New Guinea, it has become a popular species in botanical gardens for its unique appearance. 

The Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis is so potent that it was once responsible for shutting down a Smithsonian greenhouse, although it’s still a welcome addition to the plant collection. Amazingly, this is an incredibly rare plant and any botanist would kill to see it flower, especially considering that the plant may require years of growth before its first blooms appear. 

Sadly, the species is under threat because of its very small range, where humans are now attempting to claim the land to build homes.

14. Fetid Adder’s Tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii)

Sulfur compounds in the Fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) create a stench that closely resembles rotting flesh.

Native to parts of North America, along the western coast, the fetid adder’s tongue is unfortunately an incredibly vulnerable species. It’s under threat because of habitat loss and it prefers woodland habitats with lots of shade.

While it is a stinky species, its conservation is vital to ensure biodiversity and balance within the ecosystem. Sulfur compounds create a stench that’s very similar to rotting flesh and this attracts flies which are responsible for pollinating the plant which boasts pretty white petals striped in rich reddish-purple. The three petals have a serpent-like appearance, which is where the plant takes its name.

Flowering in the early spring, this is when the fetid adder’s tongue is most potent but due to its very slow rate of growth, it can take years before the first blooms appear.

15. Jackal Food (Hydnora africana)

During the blooming period, the fleshy jackal food bursts above the surface, emitting a foul odor often likened to that of feces or decaying flesh.
Seth / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The final plant we’re going to meet is the Hydnora africana, more commonly known as jackal food, which is found across southern parts of Africa, where it spends most of its life under the dry ground. 

During the blooming period, the fleshy flower bursts above the surface, emitting a rotten smell that’s compared to poop or decaying flesh.

Carrion beetles love this smell as they associate it with food, so they’re attracted to the plant and aid in its pollination. In terms of appearance, the flower is pretty unique and begins as a scaly-looking structure that opens out to reveal a fleshy red center. Flowers can grow up to 7.9 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Interestingly, the rest of the plant, including leaves, remain under the ground, where they attach to the roots of other plants and act as a parasite.

Even though jackals’ food has a very unpleasant smell, it has been used in African cultures for many years. The tubers, in particular, are thought to have many health benefits, including the prevention of dysentery.

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