When I was a teenager I pretended that I didn’t like flowers, “They’re the genitals of plants why would I want those as a gift, gross!” I made a huge show about telling everyone how much I hated them. Clubs in my school routinely sold flowers for fundraisers. While the idea is nice, in the Lord of the Flies dystopia that is high school it became a ruthless popularity competition. The flowers were rarely bought as love-tokens. Mostly friends, or worse those aspiring to climb the friendship social ladder, dropped $1 for a crappy carnation, dyed our school colours, to be delivered to your homeroom. During booster drives the girls would sit in nervous silence, anticipating the bouquet that was the physical representation of our popularity. We would then have to carry around said popularity posey the rest of the day for everyone to see. Popular girls walked out of first period looking like they won Miss America, unfortunate girls made up excuses about getting to school late. I saw more than one heartbroken young lady weep in the bathroom over a $1 flower.
I wasn’t entirely friendless, I got my share of carnations, but I wanted to opt out of this floral hunger games because really I couldn’t stand the pressure. So I told everyone that I hated flowers. When a cheerleader hocking her wares overheard my rant and tried to call my bluff I reformulated my stance, “I hate most flowers, I’m only into carrion flowers and I don’t really want to bother with anything of less value so if people want to donate money in my name that’s great, but I don’t want one of those dyed things.” [making shooing motions with my hands].
Carrion flowers were something I read about in the Encyclopedia Britannica set my parents had. I knew they were big and weird, but I forgot the part about them smelling like dead bodies. Clearly, the cheerleader did not have the Encyclopedia Britannica at home because she took this as haughty sophistication instead of the complete bullshit that it was and I got left alone about the goddamned carnations for the rest of the year.
This episode taught me three things 1. The toxic strategy of avoiding others judgments by being epicurean and snotty. 2. Reading the encyclopaedia has untold benefits and 3. I really do love carrion flowers, and you should too.
Flowers are not pretty or smell nice for our benefit but for their pollinators. Flowering plants have developed lots of strategies to help them reproduce. In many cases co-evolving with their pollinating insects to create this extraordinary harmony. From bright colours to patterns that resemble bees, to nectar trails that can only be seen under ultraviolet light (ps: bees can see ultraviolet) the diversity of attraction strategies is amazing.
Scent is also a powerful lure. We are familiar with the lush exotics and delicate florals, but mother nature is no prude. The carrion flowers, also known as corpse flowers, are a whole group of flowering plants that choose to go the darker side of the olfactive spectrum. These flowers stink! They reek specifically like rotting bloated flesh in the wet phase of decomposition. Some can add to this noxious bouquet by imitating common smells associated with a dead body such as blood, urine, and poop. Many of them also have markings and textures that give the appearance of mottled rotting flesh.
There are a lot of advantages to this stinky strategy. Firstly it uses minimal energy to be so smelly. In the Amorphophallus family, arguably the most famous of the corpse flowers, the concentration of Dimethyl sulfides (DMS), specifically Dimethyl disulfide and Dimethyl trisulfide, is only 5 parts per billion, a very small amount. Therefore the plant as a low energy cost for creating this noisome aroma. Scientists are still not sure how an Amorphophallus bloom can get that much DMS punch out of such a little investment. DMS is a tricky set of compounds. In certain doses, it can smell like sea water, cabbage, rotting meat, or extremely bad breath. Cabbage has a greater concentration of DMS but does not smell as bad. Now before you hate stinky old Dimethyl sulfides, there is a growing theory that DMS plays an important role in maintaining the planet’s homoeostasis.So give the carrion flowers a break, they are keeping the ecosystem going.
Their little payload of stink attracts a slew of animals that may not usually be involved in pollination of other flowering plants in the local ecosystem. This limits competition over pollinators. As we have talked about before, insects can smell a corpse within minutes of death. These flowers attract the same animals that are attracted to dead bodies. Female Bluebottle Flies or Blow Flies are usually the first on the scene after the flowers bloom, looking for a place to lay their eggs, followed by carrion beetles and other insects. The quick response of corpse-friendly insects, as well as the minimal fragrance payload, are advantages to carrion flowers that are often gigantic and in several cases parasitic. Another common trait is semi-catchment strategies. These flowers often have some kind of funnel or bowl-like structure for insects to get into and may have some difficulty getting out of again. The point isn’t to use them as food like carnivorous plants, but to make sure they stay long enough to pollinate. Some blooms last only for a few days before the plant goes into hibernation or dies. They need the sure bet of those fast moving flies to reproduce. Too bad for the flies that any eggs laid in the bloom will not have the benefits of nutrient-rich corpse flesh for their maggots to feast on after hatching.
The public interest in carrion flowers has ebbed and flowed over time, in a way showing how short our memories are. While some of the most unusual corpse flowers were discovered in Sumatra in the 17th Century, they were hard to transport to greenhouses outside of the tropics. People had to suffice with drawings and travelogues. The most popular carrion flower by far is the giant Amorphophallus titanum. It’s first known flowering in cultivation occurred in 1889 at Kew Gardens where it was a sensation, but after the fad of the strange exotic flower waned, carrion flowers wouldn’t pop back up until the 1930s. There were cultivations in botanical gardens in Indonesia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. Germany, in particular, had seven botanical gardens with at least one species of carrion flower. In the summer of 1937, the New York Botanical Gardens had a giant 2.57 m (8.43 ft) bloom that so mesmerised the public that the Amorphophallus titanum became the official flower of the Bronx.
Then they fell into obscurity again. There were a few bloomings of note in Indonesia and Germany in the interim, but no one seemed to care. With all the Post-WWII entertainments available botanical gardens were a bit boring. Then in 1995, Dr Jim Symom brought back a wild seedling which he planted in the University of Missouri-St. Louis greenhouse. In 1998 a dinky 0.89 m. (2 ft 11 inches) high Amorphophallus titanum bloomed for the first time in the US since 1937 and people went nuts for it all over again.
A giant flower you say….and what does it smell like? We’re going!
People rushed to see it during its short bloom and struggling botanical gardens around the US got an idea.
Since the St. Louis corpse flower resurrection there have been, as of the time of this writing, 131 cultivated bloomings of Amorphophallus titanum in the US alone. [There have been 25 more bloomings in the last 20 months since this piece was publsihed] Not to mention hundreds of other blooms that are all over the world from Japan to Brasil. There have been three times more cultivated bloomings between 1998 and 2008 then from 1889 to 1998. We are living in the Age of the Carrion Flowers. So why are they treated as such a rarity?
Well, because they are primarily marketed as botanical freak shows.
The Amorphophallus titanum blooms every five to ten years, just long enough for people to forget about them. The flower lasts for maybe 3 days if you are lucky so when a blooming happens the gardens can get media coverage and huge spikes in visitors. They can sell t-shirts, have naming contests and have people tune into a Bloom Cam on their website. The flowers get marketed as rare, unique, a once in a lifetime experience. People can’t miss that once in a lifetime experience, so they pile the kids into the car for an afternoon of culture and fart jokes. Oh yes, making fun of the scent and showing your revolution by gaging and pretending to pass out seems to be universally accepted as part of the fun. The reek is so hyped that there have been visitors that left disappointed because the flower didn’t smell as bad as they thought it would. This kind of gross-out entertainment has the air of the freak show or the oddity shop about it. People aren’t really going to learn about these flowers.
I don’t begrudge the gardens their marketing strategy. Botanical gardens are libraries of plants, and most do a great deal of research behind the scenes. They get very little funding, and their crowd sizes have been shrinking for 80 years. Even Kew Gardens, one of the most prestigious botanical gardens in the world, is £5 million short of their funding goals this year. One seed that requires little care will create a much-needed boom to admissions every five years or so. You throw in a couple more acts and some Halloween pumpkin carving, and you just might make enough revenue to keep these grand dames up and kicking.
I worry about overexposure, though. The appeal is the rarity, but now they are not really rare anymore. In fact, in 2016, 7 Amorphophallus titanums bloomed in the US at the same time. The spin was great, article after article talked about the mystery of the synchronised blooming titans…dun dun dah…what does it mean! Everything from cross-country telepathic plant communication to increased greenhouse gases got suggested. I think the fact that there were so many of them, planted around the same time, in similar conditions, and many are seedlings from the same mother bloom might have had more to do with it, but you can’t sell a t-shirt for the once in a lifetime oddity with that as a headline.
I really just wish more people could see past the funk at what wonderful plants these are.
Here is a quick sampling of some of my favourite foul smelling beauties. They are all wonderful in their own right and show the diverse types of plants that adopt similar strategies for reproduction and survival.
Amorphophallus titanum (Corpse Flower)
By far the best known of the carrion flowers, Amorphophallus titanum is a tropical tuberous herbaceous plant. Its name means giant misshapen penis in Greek and is referring to the large conical protuberance known as a spadix. When not in bloom the Amorphophallus titanum kind of looks like a banana tree. The stalk and leaflets will wither and fall away above ground so that the flower can come forth when it is time to reproduce. It may look like one giant flower, but it is actually the largest inflorescence (grouping of flowers on one stem) in the world. What looks like the flower petal is the spathe, the inflorescence is actually inside.
Smell wise Amorphophallus titanum leans heavily to the moth ball and poop side of indolic. Yet it still has that benzyl alcohol sweet floral note but with a little bit of a bloody putrescent from the DMS in the background. And I get a touch of corn chips/dirty socks which I think is isovaleric acid, but I’m not sure. Overall not the worst offender on the list, but pretty stinky.
Rafflesia arnoldii (Devil’s Betelnut Box)
Rafflesia arnoldii is the largest single flower in the world. It is local to Indonesia where it’s called Kerubut which translates to the Devil’s betelnut box. Rafflesia arnoldii is actually a parasite that latches on to several vine species of the genus Tetrastigma. While it’s still considered a vascular plant it has no leaves, stems, or roots. Instead, as a seed, it sends out threads like a fungus to bore into the host vine, taking water and nutrients. It then pulls itself in and grafts itself into the host vine. Its buds will rupture from the vine looking like giant maroon cabbages that then burst into a red blossom with petals bearing a striking resemblance to rotting meat. The flower lasts several days, and after it fruits, the whole blossom turns to black liquefied mush. The Rafflesia arnoldii relies on both flies and tree shrews, and sometimes elephants to complete its lifecycle. It is one of the official flowers of Indonesia and is highly admired despite its smell. It is even the inspiration for the Pokemon Vileplume. Yet its popularity might be its downfall; because its lifecycle is such a delicate process, the flower is threatened by eco-tourists that go tramping out to see them in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
I haven’t smelt Rafflesia arnoldii in the flesh, but I have it from reliable sources that it goes heavy with the putrescine, cadaverine, and trimethylamine giving it a much more pungent rotting, meaty, but rotting fish smell.
Stapelia gigantea (Toad Plant)
Stapelia gigantea is a low-growing, spineless, stem succulent plant, found in South Africa predominantly in KwaZulu-Natal. They look like a plant growing upside down. The flowers grow at ground-level while the succulent body sprouts upward. The flowers have hair-like filaments to help with pollination and also give the appearance of hair growing on skin. There are fine red markings that grow in intensity as you reach the apex of the blossom these may serve as visual guides for pollinators. They resemble burst capillaries. It’s pale flowers highlight these red markings, as well as help the plant with thermal regulation. Its primary pollinator is the Blow Fly which is often fooled into thinking the flower’s coronae is a wound and lays its eggs in it. Surprisingly Stapelia gigantea is a pretty popular potted plant in South Africa. It is easy to grow, produces flowers the size of dinner plates, and I have been told is used as a diet aid. People that are trying to suppress their appetite will smell the flower before meals.
Stapelia gigantea has the least sillage of the blooms on this list, and I think its pretty harmless. While in the heat of the sun I can pick up a meaty foulness, mostly it smells to me like three-day-old over-cooked cabbage.
Another native to the rainforests of Borneo, Bulbophyllum beccarii is the largest of the Bulbophyllum genus and one of the largest plants in the Orchid family. Bulbophyllum beccarii is unusual for the Orchid family because instead of a twiggy frame it has a thick rhizome that snakes its way around tree trunks struggling to reach any precious light that cracks through the canopy. The thick vine-like rhizome is studded with egg-shaped pseudobulbs, each with a large leathery cup-like leaf at its apex. This leaf collects water and forest debris which the plant uses as fertiliser. Near the pseudobulb, the inflorescences will bloom. It kind of looks like a bunch of grapes at first, but from each little bud, a tiny orchid emerges. The blossom is primarily yellow but is has raised red markings that look like drops of blood.
Blood is definitely the takeaway from this orchid. It has an aldehydic blood note with a rotting funk that I couldn’t quite pin down.
Dracunculus vulgaris (Voodoo Lilly)
Endemic to the Balkans, Greece, Crete, the Aegean Islands, and parts of Anatolia, Dracunculus vulgaris is known in its native lands as Drakondia, though in the English-speaking world you will usually see it called Voodoo Lilly. Its Greek name comes from a folk belief that the long dark purple spadix was the tail of a baby dragon hiding in the spathe and the foul smell was the baby dragons meaty breath. I was unable to track down the origins of the name Voodoo Lilly, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with its colour and adding an exotic edge. The plant is poisonous if eaten as it contains calcium oxalate, but so do Poinsettias, and I found no evidence that it is used in traditional rootwork. Dracunculus vulgaris is a tuberous perennial of the family Araceae like its big Indonesian cousin Amorphophallus titanum. This bloom has become popular as an ornamental flower, which has changed its pollinators. In the wild Staphylinid and Scarabidinid beetles do the job, but in suburban gardens flies and bees are the ones at work. Which makes me wonder if it will evolve to a new scent profile over time.
Dracunculus vulgaris smells like rotting hamburger on its first day of blooming, but it quickly fades.
Helicodiceros muscivorus (Dead Horse Flower)
Helicodiceros muscivorus is the only plant in the genus Helicodiceros and is native to the Western Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands. It is one of a rare group of thermogenic plants that can change its temperature by thermogenesis. This amazing flower can actually raise its own temperature to cause its odour to spread further. It is called the Dead Horse Flower because it smells like a dead horse and when it heats itself up it smells like a dead horse baking in the sun. Of course to its pollinators, it is an intoxicating brew. Landing on the warm flower may even give the impression of arriving early to the corpse party while the body is still warm. Its hairy spadix and spathe along with its mottled pale yellow, pink, and red colouring adds to the carcass affect.
Helicodiceros muscivorus packs a punch. While it has a short lifespan, on a warm day, you can smell it’s truly putrid, musky, meat smell from several dozen meters away.
Hydnora africana (Jackel Fruit)
I know what you are thinking, “This is clearly not a plant. This is a demon trying to drag me to hell or an alien egg hatching!” Hydnora africana, direct translation: African truffles, has one of the oddest morphologies on the planet. The Hydnora africana is another parasitic plant, spending most of its life underground. It secretes an enzyme to weaken the roots of members of the Euphorbiaceae family so that it can latch on. Unlike Rafflesia arnoldii, it isn’t a vascular plant. It has no chlorophyll and can not photosynthesis, it gets all its nutrients from its host. The bloom, and yes that is a bloom, emerge as a crusty brown pod that looks like a ball of dung which splits open to reveal its soft fleshy orange petals. Flowering is sporadic, occurring only after heavy rainfall, and it captures its pollinators before it blooms. Its pollinators are dung and carrion beetles that pollinate the flower by burying themselves in the sepals of the flowers through the tough fibres that hold the sepals together. After the insects have been in the flower for a couple of days, the flower emerges and opens, releasing the insects to spread the pollen to other flowers in the area. Its common name, Jackel Fruit, comes from the small potato-like fruits the plant produces that are a source of food for many animals, the largest of which is the jackal.
Hydnora africana is one of the few plants that made me want to throw up. It has insane power and range. If you find yourself in South Africa for the love of goodness, don’t touch it! Even under glass, I could smell it. It is heavy on the DMS (dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide) so think stinky cheese and hot garbage, but it is so overpoweringly faecal you would think there was an open sewer under your nose. But it’s not just a poop smell its poop in dead intestines that got nicked in an autopsy smell.
So I hope you have a new found appreciation of these wonderful flowers and when the next corpse flower blooms in your city, go out and enjoy it in a whole new way.
Cover Image: “Mr Fitch’s faithful representation of the plant”, Nature and Art Vol.I, page 156/157, published 1866 Day & Son, Ltd, London