- Education and Science»
- Life Sciences
Carrion Flowers: 10 Flowers That Stink
Some flowers smell delightfull, but bloom for just a day
While others linger on and on and smell of flesh decayed
Carrion Flowers (also commonly called Stink Flowers or Rotting Meat Flowers) are flowers that carry a distinct odour, as their name implies, of rotting flesh. The undiscerning gardener may at first think 'what is the point of a flower smelling like rotten meat', but the reason behind it is actually quite ingenious. They use their scent to attract pollinators, which in their case are the various scavenging flies and beetles that are normally attracted to dead animals on which they lay their eggs. It is a diverse group, some species of carrion flower are quite strange and seem almost alien in origin while others are record holders and grow to a great size. Without further ado, lets hold our breath and take a deeper look at some of these stinky flowers.
1. Rafflesia arnoldii
Endemic to the rainforest of the Bengkulu and Sumatra regions of Indonesia, Rafflesia arnoldii holds the record of having the largest single flower of any plant (there are other larger flowers that look like single flowers but are in fact compound flowers made up of many smaller flower). It is one of three national flowers of Indonesia. Known as Corpse Flower by the locals, the giant flowers can reach one metre (3 ft) across and weight up to 11 kg (24 lb), large enough to sit inside. Despite its large flower the rest of the plant is just tiny parasitic strands that provide for the flower by stealing nutrients, energy and water from a particular rainforest vine. It is difficult to find as the flower itself only lasts for a couple of days. It is becoming rare due to deforestation and over-collecting but conservationists are trying to keep the species alive by re-creating the specific growing conditions it requires.
2. Hydnora africana
This flower goes by the unfortunate name of Jackal Food and is truly alien in appearance. It is native to southern Africa. It is another root parasite, using various semi-arid species of Euphorbia shrubs as hosts. The rest of the plant has no leaves, does not contain any chlorophyll and is entirely contained underground. It is even more disgusting than most of the other plants mentioned because it actually smells like feces to attract pollination by dung beetles as well as carrion beetles. The cage shaped flowers act as traps for the unsuspecting beetles that enter, finally releasing them when pollination is complete and the flower fully opens. The fruit that follow are berries up to 8cm across that have an edible jelly like pulp full of seeds. The pulp has a slightly sweet, starchy taste and is said to be delicious after roasting on a fire. The fruits are a favourite of porcupines, moles, baboons, jackals and birds.
3. Stapelia gigantea
Another stinky customer, this time belonging to a succulent that goes by the names of Carrion Plant or Toad Plant. You will notice a recurring trend that most of the common names for carrion flowers are anything but glamorous. The plant itself superficially looks like a cactus but has no spines and actually belongs to the same family as Frangipani and Oleander. It is native to South Africa. The flowers are quite hairy and this combined with their strange ribbed texture and odour is really effective at tricking flies, so much so that you can often find fly eggs at the centre of the flower. One member of this genus, Stapelia flavopurpurea has managed to distance itself from its stinky cousins and instead smells like sweet beeswax.
4. Crescentia alata
This small tree (to 8m tall) produces masses of tubular carrion scented flowers along its trunk and branches. These then get pollinated by flies and turn into hard, thick-skinned cannonball shaped fruits up to 10cm across. The fruits are sometimes hollowed out, dried and used as food and drink containers. The seeds are edible, high in protein and have a sweet aniseed taste. It is known by many common names including Mexican Calabash, Jicaro, Morrito and Winged Calabash. Its native range extends from southern Mexico south to Costa Rica.
5. Helicodiceros muscivorus
This is the aptly named Dead Horse Arum Lily. It is native to the northwestern Mediterranean region. It goes one step further than most in attracting its blowfly pollinator by mimicking not only the stench, colour and hairiness of rotting animal flesh, but also by raising its temperature above that of the surrounding air, closer to the temperature of a freshly dead corpse. While common in warm-blooded animals, thermogenesis in plants is quite rare and limited only to a few groups. This plant belongs to the family Araceae, known collectively as arum lilies or aroids, they have many members with carrion-scented flowers.
6. Dracunculus vulgaris
This plant, another arum lily that smells like a rotting carcass, goes by a variety of common names including Dragon Arum, Black Arum, Voodoo Lily, Snake Lily, Stink Lily, Black Dragon, Black Lily, Dragonwort, Ragons and Drakondia. It is native to the Balkans. Many of these names make reference to the word dragon and were given by people who thought that the long purple pointed spadix at the centre of the flower bore a resemblance to the tail of a dragon, hiding within the lighter purple spathe of the flower. Any dragon living inside this flower would have to have a very bad sense of smell indeed.
7. Lysichiton americanus
Yet another arum lily, this one goes by the names Western Skunk Cabbage, Yellow Skunk Cabbage or Yellow Lantern. As you may have already guessed, the flowers of this plant produce a fly and beetle-attracting odour similar to that of a skunk. It is native to the Pacific Northwest region of North America where it is one of the first flowers to emerge in spring. When emerging from hibernation, bears will often seek out this plant for its laxative affect in order to get their bowls moving once again. This plant also has many indigenous uses. It was used to treat burns, sores and swelling and eaten in times of famine and said to have a peppery taste (do not try this at home as this plant needs to be prepared correctly as it contain potentially deadly calcium oxalate crystals). The large leaves were also used to line baskets and wrap food to protect it while baking under a fire.
8. Symplocarpus foetidus
Another stinky arum lily, this one goes by a varied assortment of names including Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Polecat Weed, Foetid Pothos, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Swamp Cabbage and Meadow Cabbage. It is native to the wetlands of eastern North America and has some truly remarkable capabilities. Like the Dead Horse Arum Lily above, it is capable of thermogenesis. It can raise its temperature from 15°C-35°C above the surrounding air which is high enough to melt icy soils and even allow it to flower while there is still ice and snow on the ground. This plant also has contractile roots that contract once they have penetrated into the soil. This has the effect of pulling the stem of the plant downwards into the soil, effectively meaning that the bulk of the plant will be underground with only a few leaves and flowers at the surface. This also means that older plants are nearly impossible to dig up. This plant was used as a medicinal plant, as a dried seasoning and as a magical talisman by various indigenous tribes. Care should be taken as it is toxic and requires treatment prior to use.
9. Arum maculatum
This common woodland arum lily native to northern Europe goes by many names including Lords and Ladies, Devils and Angels, Adam and Eve, Cows and Bulls, Cuckoo-Pint, Wake Robin, Bobbins, Wild Arum and Starch-Root. This species is thermogenic and can warm up to a temperature about 15°C higher than the surrounding air. This combined with a fecal odor attract insects towards the base of the spadix where there is a ring of female flowers and a ring of male flowers. Above the ring of male flowers is a ring of hairs which traps the insect inside and it is dusted in pollen whenever it brushes against the male flowers. Once the pollen-loaded insect escapes it then finds another flower and as it brushes onto the female flowers it transfers pollen from the original plant, completing pollination. The bright orange berries that follow are poisonous and are one of the leading causes of admittance to hospital emergency departments for plant poisoning where this species occurs. The plant has an underground tuber rich in starch and up to 40cm (16 inches) long which although toxic can be eaten after being prepared correctly. All parts of the plant have caused allergic reactions in people so care should be taken if handling it.
10. Amorphophallus titanum
Saving the best till last, this giant arum lily holds the record of having the largest unbranched inflorescence of any plant. The largest one recorded to date was a 3.1m (2ft 2.25in) tall specimen which flowered on the 18th of June 2010. It goes by several common names, some shared with other carrion flowers, including Titan Arum, Corpse Flower and Corpse Plant. It is endemic to the limestone hills of western Sumatra and can grow where there are gaps in the rain-forest canopy that allow enough sunlight in. This plant is thermogenic and during flowering the tip of the spadix can reach a temperature close to 36°C helping its odor spread and when combined with the deep-red colour and texture of the spathe helping to trick flesh flies and carrion-eating beetles into pollinating it. The plant holds another record, it has the largest underground corm of any plant, normally weighing around 50kg (110lb). Once the flower dies back the plant produces a single large leaf up to 6m tall and 5m across from energy reserves in the corm. Once this new leaf has gathered enough energy it then dies and the plant become dormant for four months before flowering and starting the cycle again.