Some flowers boast attractive petals catching attention while others release a heavenly, sweet perfume. Carrion flowers also are fragrant, but the odor is more akin to rotten meat or feces than sweet nectar. As much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so also is the appeal of scent to different pollinators. Carrion flowers lure flies and beetles for pollination instead of butterflies and bees. The stench also keeps meddling humans away from reproducing plants.
Gardeners usually don't grow plants producing foul-smelling flowers. However, the oddity of the stench, reaction of people and conversation centered on carrion flowers makes them interesting plants. Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus and Lysichiton americanus), voodoo lily or Titan arum (Amorphophallus spp.), dragon arum (Dranunculus vulgaris), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), starfish flower (Stapelia spp.) and Dutchman's pipes (Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia spp.) are a few examples of carrion-scented flowering plants. Even a few orchids produce rank-smelling flowers, such as those in the genera Bulbophyllum and Pterostylis.
Source of Stench
Plants smelling of rotten meat do not contain animal flesh or feces. The flowers produce compounds, usually amines, mimicking the smell of dead animals. The plants manufacture two proteins, ornithine and lysine, that are structurally modified, producing stinky amines such as putrescine and cadaverine. Dimethyl oligosulphides contain sulfur atoms contributing to the smell of bad eggs as well as rotting meat proteins. These compounds smell the same as those produced naturally in decomposition.
Reasons to be Smelly
Carrion flowers release stinky perfume attracting flies and beetles that naturally seek rotting meat from dead animal carcasses. This is a specialized adaptation by plants that developed a specific relationship with insects ensuring flower pollination. The insect that finds the stinky flower is not interested in being a pollinator. Instead, it thinks the smelly flower is rotting meat or feces -- the prime habitat to lay its eggs. The insects burrow and walk around the smelly flower and find nothing, unknowingly spreading pollen around the flower.
Plants yielding foul-smelling blossoms occur in a variety of ecosystems and geographies. Skunk cabbages and pawpaw naturally grow in moist woodlands and thickets in temperate regions. Voodoo lilies, Dutchman pipes and smelly orchids exist naturally in the tropical rainforests. Starfish flowers are succulents that look like cacti and grow on the sunny hills and rock outcroppings in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Wayne's Word; Not All Flowers Smell As Sweet As A Rose; W.P. Armstrong; Summer 1997
- "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants"; Christopher Brickell and H. Marc Cathey, eds.; 2004
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