While flowers typically attract humans and insects alike with their enchanting beauty and luscious fragrance, some rather perverse stinking flowers entice flesh and fecal-loving insects to their foul-smelling blooms in the guise of meat by their colors and fetid scents, which include some of the largest and most bizarre flowers in the world.
The largest flower in the world is the rare blood-red Rafflesia arnoldii known as largest individual flower on earth which can grow to 3 feet (90 centimeters) across and weigh up to 24 pounds (11 kilos), found growing on the jungle floor in the rainforests of Indonesia, Malaya, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines.
Similar to fungi, this beauty is a parasitic plant that grows as thread-like strands of tissue which attaches itself to a host plant such as the tropical Tetrastigma grape vine, completely embedding itself to feast upon its water and nutrients, which is why it was nicknamed the “corpse flower.”It bears no visible leaves, roots, or stem — since they don’t make photosynthesis, Rafflesia do not need these organs.
The strange plant emits a repulsive rotten-flesh stench which attracts insects such as carrion flies that pollinate the plant that would send humans scurrying the opposite direction if it weren’t for its spectacular splendor.
The non-flowering stage is nearly invisible, consisting of microscopic filaments growing inside the liana. It can take several years for the plant to begin flowering, when a tiny orange-brown cabbage-like bud appears, gradually growing to its massive size which only lasts for several days.
The flower consists of 5 dark red, leathery petals with white spots surrounding a domed cavity, and a central column is covered by a disc of spines, the function of which is unknown. If the female flower is pollinated, a spongy fruit develops about 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide containing thousands of seeds about one millimeter long, but it’s not known how they’re dispersed.
The flowers are unisexual and thus proximity of male and female flowers is vital for pollination, making successful pollination a rare event.
DNA analysis showed that 46 million years ago, the plants’ blooms began to evolve at an accelerated pace, increasing from a tiny 0.08inches (2millimeters) up to their gigantic size.
Several species of Rafflesia grow in the jungles of southeast Asia including the Philippines, many of which are threatened or endangered. How many of these strange plants still survive is unknown, but as the remaining primary forests of Borneo and Sumatra disappear, it can only be assumed that their numbers are dwindling.
Some environmentalists are thinking of a way to recreate the species’ environment in an effort to stimulate a recovery in the population of this endangered species. This has proven unsuccessful to date, but the efforts have continued and steps are being taken to conserve the forests of Sumatra and Borneo.
Amorphophallus — Titan Arum
The world’s tallest flower — which is actually a cluster of flowers — is the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium), about 10 feet (3 meters) tall fully-grown, also commonly referred to as the “corpse flower.”The enormous flower grows from a corm of up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) diameter, weighing over 110 pounds (50 kilos). After a dormant period of several months, a bud will develop, growing at a rate of 1.5 to 8 inches (4 to 20) centimeters a day.
Rather than a single flower, the titan arum has an inflorescence — a compound cluster — of many tiny flowers composed of a spadix or stalk of small and reduced male and female flowers, surrounded by a spathe that resembles a single giant petal. It possesses the largest unbranched inflorescence of all flowering plants.
The spathe is green on the outside, dark burgundy red on the inside, and deeply furrowed. The spadix is a hollow pale yellow, resembling a large loaf of French bread. The upper visible portion of the spadix is covered in pollen, while its lower extremity is spangled with bright red-orange carpels. The flower’s deep red color and texture contribute to the illusion that the spathe is a piece of meat.
This plant has a mechanism to heat up the spadix to about human body temperature during bloom, enhancing the emission of the putrid scent of decaying meat to attract its pollinators — dung and carrion beetles and “flesh flies” — and to further add to the illusion that attracts carcass-eating insects.
The insects enter the chamber in the lower part of the flower where they fertilize the female flower if they’re carrying pollen from another bloom, and upon exit they’re coated with pollen which they may then carry to another plant. Like the Rafflesia, the flowering period of the Amorphophallus is a brief 2 to 3 days, and then the flower collapses.
After the flower dies back, a single leaf can reach the size of a small tree which grows from the underground corm. The leaf grows on a semi-green stalk that branches into 3 sections at the top, each containing many leaflets. The leaf structure can reach up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall and 16 feet (5 meters) across. Each year, the old leaf dies and a new one grows in its place. When the corm has stored enough energy, it becomes dormant for about 4 months, and the process repeats.
The titan arum is native only in the wild in the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. It was first discovered by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878. The plant only flowers infrequently in the wild and even more rarely when cultivated. It was first flowered in cultivation at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in London, in 1889, with over 100 cultivated blossoms since then.
Until 2005, the tallest bloom in cultivation was 8 feet 11 inches (2.74 meters) high at the Botanical Gardens of Bonn, Germany in 2003, and was acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records. The record was broken at the botanical and zoological garden Wilhelma in Stuttgart, Germany with the bloom reaching 9 feet 6 inches (2.94 meters) in height on October 20 2005.
The largest alleged recorded height since has reached 10 feet 10 inches (3.3 meters), with the heaviest weighing 165 pounds (75 kilos).
Corypha umbraculifera — Talipot palm
Corypha umbraculifera (Talipot palm) bears the largest inflorescence of any plant at 20 to 26 feet (6 to 8 meters) long, consisting of 1 to several million small flowers borne on a branched stalk that forms at the top of the trunk. The Titan Arum has the largest unbranched inflorescence, and the Rafflesia arnoldii has the world’s largest single flower.
It’s a fan palm and one of the largest palms in the world with individual specimens reaching heights up to 82 feet (25 meters), with stems up to 4 feet (1.3 meters) in diameter. The large palmate leaves can reach up to 16.5 feet (5 meters) in diameter, with a petiole up to 13 feet (4 meters) bearing as many as 130 leaflets.
The Talipot palm is monocarpic — flowering only once — when it reaches 30 to 80 years old. It takes about a year for the fruit to mature, producing thousands of round yellow-green fruit 1.6 inches (3 to 4 centimeters) in diameter, containing a single seed and dies after fruiting.
The Talipot palm is native to southern India (Malabar Coast) and Sri Lanka and cultivated throughout southeast Asia, north to southern China.
Its leaves were written upon in various Southeast Asian cultures using an iron stylus to create palm leaf manuscripts. They are also used for thatching, and the sap is tapped to make palm wine.
Carrion or Stinking Flowers
Unlike their sweet-smelling counterparts, the somewhat perverse carrion flowers and stinking flowers entice flesh and fecal-loving insects to their foul-smelling blooms in the guise of meat by their colors and fetid scents that typically smell and look like rotten flesh. Species and plant families vary, which include some of the largest and most bizarre flowers on earth. Some species may trap the unwitting insects temporarily with movable parts in the flower that catapult or maneuver them to ensure the gathering and transfer of pollen.
Carrion flowers are masters in the art of deception as they lure these insects into their blossoms. The flowers become pollinated but the fate of the insects is far more dismal — maggots hatching from eggs laid by them will perish from lack of any suitable food. Unlike typical insect-pollinated flowers, most carrion flowers don’t waste precious energy on rewarding their pollinators with copious nectar.
The sources of the flowers’ unique scent is not fully identified, partly due to the extremely low concentration of the compounds (5 to 10 parts per billion), but simple amines present in decaying flesh called putrescine and cadaverine are known to be present. Dimethyl sulfides, including disulfide and trisulfide have been detected in Amorphophallus.
Stapelia — Star Flower
Stapelia are small, low growing, spineless, cactus-like succulent carrion flower plants. The flowers are usually flesh-colored, hairy to varying degrees and emit the odor of rotten flesh. Blooms in some species can grow very large, notably Stapelia gigantea which can reach 16 inches (41 centimeters) in diameter.
The petals are covered with soft white hairs, resembling a layer of mold growing on rotting matter. The putrid scent attracts attract various pollinators including blow flies of the dipteran family Calliphoridae. Flies and maggots are attracted to the central orifice where the male and female floral sex organs are located. The insects frequently lay eggs around the coronae of Stapelia flowers, convinced by the plants’ deception.
Stapelia are commonly known by various other names including Starfish Flower, Star Cactus, Giant Toad Flower, Zulu Giant and in Australia it’s called the Dead Horse Plant.A handful of species are commonly cultivated as pot plants and used as rockery plants in countries where the climate permits. Most species are native to South Africa.
Hydnora africana is a is parasitic plant on the roots of the Euphorbiaceae species that grows underground in arid deserts of South Africa, except for a flower that grows above ground.The fleshy colored flower emerges above the sandy ground which emits an odor of feces to attract its natural pollinators, dung beetles, and carrion beetles in droves.
The flowers act as traps for a brief period retaining the beetles that enter, then releases them when the flower is fully opened.
Helicodiceros muscivorus — Dead horse arum lily
Helicodiceros muscivorus — also known as the Dead horse arum lily — is an ornamental plant native to the northwestern Mediterranean region that reproduces the stench of rotting meat, attracting carrion-seeking blowflies which act as pollinators.
Dracunculus vulgaris — Voodoo lily
Sometimes known as Voodoo lily, the dracunculus vulgaris is a species of aroid in the genus Dracunculus. The species is distinguished by a large purple spathe and spadix, and gives off a very unpleasant smell reminiscent of a carcass to attract its pollinators of Lucilia flies, amongst others.
The plant traps them in its own inflorescence for 1 night and the next day it releases them with a load of pollen. It was introduced to the U.S. from another country or countries and is currently found in the states of Oregon, California and Tennessee as well as the country of Puerto Rico. The natural habitats of this strange flower are in Europe around the Balkans.
Lysichiton americanus — Western Skunk Cabbage
Western Skunk Cabbage — sometimes called Yellow Skunk Cabbage or Swamp Lantern — is known as such due to the malodorous, distinctive “skunky” odor it emits which permeates the area where it grows, and can be detected even in old, dried specimens. The foul odor attracts its pollinators, scavenging flies and beetles. It’s found in swamps and wet woods, along streams and in other wet areas of the Pacific Northwest, U.S.
The plant grows from rhizomes that measure 12 inches (30 centimeters) or longer, and 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) in diameter. The leaves are the largest of any native plant in the region, 20 to 54 inches (50 to 135 centimeters) long and 12 to 32 inches (30 to 80 centimeters) wide when mature.
Its flowers are produced in a spadix contained within a large, bright yellow or yellowish green spathe 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 centimeters) tall, and among the first flowers to appear in spring. The skunk cabbage also produces heat — during the winter it melts the snow around it in order to survive. Although similarly named, the plant is easy to distinguish from the Eastern Skunk Cabbage.
This plant is found from Kodiak Island and Cook Inlet, Alaska south through British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California as far south as Santa Cruz County. Isolated populations are also found in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
It can also be found growing wild in marshy areas in England, such as Esher Commons as well as Wisley Gardens, and in Scotland near the ancient Pictish site of Forgandenny in Perthshire.
Symplocarpus foetidus — Eastern Skunk Cabbage
Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Clumpfoot Cabbage, Foetid Pothos, Meadow Cabbage, Polecat Weed, or Swamp Cabbage, commonly known as simply Skunk Cabbage, is a low growing, foul smelling plant that prefers wetlands.
The large leaves grow 16 to 22 inches (40 to 55 centimeters) long and 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 centimeters) broad. It flowers early in the year while there is still snow and ice on the ground when only the flowers are visible above the mud, with the stems buried below and the leaves emerging later.
The flowers are produced on a 2 to 4 inch (5 to 10 centimeter) long spadix contained within a spathe 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) tall and mottled purple in color. The rhizome is often 12 inches (30 centimeters) thick.Breaking or tearing a leaf produces a pungent odor. Though unpleasant, the smell is not harmful, nor is the plant poisonous to the touch. The foul odor attracts its pollinators, scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees. The odor in the leaves may also serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging it.
Skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 60 to 100° F (15 to 35° C) above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground, placing it among a small group of plants exhibiting thermogenesis. Carrion-feeding insects that are attracted by the scent may be also encouraged to enter the spathe because it’s warmer than the surrounding air, fueling pollination.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth which pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year the plant grows deeper into the earth, making older plants nearly impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and carried off by animals.
In the 19th century the U. S. Pharmacopoeia listed eastern skunk cabbage as the drug “dracontium,” used in the treatment of respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy. Skunk cabbage was used extensively as a medicinal plant, seasoning, and magical talisman by various tribes of Native Americans. While not considered edible raw, the leaves may be dried and used much like basil in soups and stews.
It can be found naturally in eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec west to Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee, and also in northeastern Asia, in eastern Siberia, northeastern China and Japan. It’s protected as a state endangered plant in Tennessee.
Arum maculatum — Jack in the Pulpit
Arum maculatum is a common woodland plant species of the Araceae family known by numerous common names including Wild arum, Lords and Ladies, Jack in the Pulpit, Devils and Angels, Cows and Bulls, Cuckoo-Pint, Adam and Eve, Bobbins, Naked Boys, Starch-Root and Wake Robin.
Its purple spotted leaves appear in the spring followed by the flowers borne on a poker shaped inflorescence purple spadix which is partially enclosed in a pale green spathe or leaf-like hood. The flowers are hidden from sight, clustered at the base of the spadix with a ring of female flowers at the bottom and a ring of male flowers above them.
Above the male flowers is a ring of hairs forming an insect trap, ensnaring the insects beneath the ring of hairs where they’re dusted with pollen before escaping and carrying the pollen to the spadices of other plants, where they pollinate the female flowers. The spadix may also be yellow, but purple is more common.
In autumn the lower ring of female flowers forms a cluster of bright red berries which remain after the spathe and other leaves have withered away, and are extremely poisonous. The root-tube may be very large and is used to store starch, reaching as much as 16 inches (40 centimeters) below ground level in mature specimens.
All parts of the plant can produce allergic reactions in many people and should be handled with care. The spadix produces heat and probably scent as the flowers mature. But there are claims that the root of the cuckoo pint, when roasted well, is edible. It was used like salop or salep (a working class drink popular before the introduction of tea or coffee), and also a substitute for arrowroot.
The plant is widespread across temperate northern Europe.
Aristolochia is a large plant genus with over 500 species. Collectively known as birthworts, pipevines or Dutchman’s pipes, they’re the namesake of the family Aristolochiaceae. They are widespread and occur in the most diverse climates. Some species, like A. utriformis and A. westlandii, are threatened with extinction.
Many species of Aristolochia are food for larvae of Lepidoptera, namely swallowtail butterflies. These become unpalatable to most predators by eating the plants.
Aristolochia clematitis — Birthwort
Aristolochia clematitis — known as (European) Birthwort — is a herbaceous plant in the Aristolochiaceae family, native to Europe and occasionally found established outside of its native range as a relic of cultivation. The leaves are heart shaped and the flowers are pale yellow and tubular in form.
This poisonous plant was formerly used as a medicinal plant — recent study suggests that it’s the cause for thousands of kidney failures in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia where the plant is unintentionally consumed through flour.
The findings were discovered after a clinic for obesity in Belgium used Aristolochiaceae as a diuretic. After a few months some of the subjects suffered from kidney carcinoma and kidney failure.Due to the Doctrine of signatures birthwort was used in childbirth as a preparation given to women in labor to expel the placenta, but the aristolochic acid may just as well kill the patient.
Others claim that a decoction of birthwort stimulates the production and increases the activity of leukocytes (white blood cells), or that pipevines contain a disinfectant which assists in wound healing.
Aristolochia gigantean — Brazilian Dutchman’s Pipe
Aristolochia gigantea — sometimes known as Brazilian Dutchman’s Pipe or Giant Pelican Flower — is an ornamental plant native to Brazil, typical of Bahia and Minas Gerais vegetation.
Many species have ingenious insect traps and malodorous, often nauseating stenches when the blossoms first open. One of the largest and most bizarre flowers on earth is the Brazilian Dutchman’s pipe.
The showy maroon calyx-like corolla is the size of a large dinner plate 12 to 16 inches (30 to 36 centimeters) across, with an “inviting” orifice leading into an inflated, bladder-like trap. Another unusual Dutchman’s pipe native to northern California (A. californica) has much smaller blossoms that are pollinated by fungus gnats.
Aristolochia grandiflora — Pelican Flower
Aristolochia grandiflora — or Pelican Flower — is a deciduous vine with enormous flowers that emit an odor that humans consider unpleasant but is attractive to insects such as butterflies. They confine their visiting flies until the male flowers are mature.
These flowers have a specialized pollination mechanism — the inner part of the perianth tube is covered with hairs, acting as a fly-trap which eventually withers to release the fly, covered with pollen. The plant is native to the Caribbean, and has been introduced to Florida in the United States
It was highly regarded as a medical plant since the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and on up to the Early Modern era, and plays a minor role in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is however most notable for containing toxic aristolochic acid, sometimes in quantities fatal to humans.
In July 1999, two cases of nephropathy associated with the use of Chinese botanical preparations were reported in the United Kingdom that were shown to contain aristolochic acid. In 1993, a series of end-stage renal disease cases had been reported from Belgium associated with a weight loss treatment, where Stephania tetrandra in a herbal preparation was suspected of being substituted with Aristolochia fangchi.
More than 105 patients were identified with nephropathy following the ingestion of this preparation from the same clinic from 1990-1992. Many required renal transplantation or dialysis. Subsequent follow up of these patients has shown they are at an increased risk of urological cancer.
Ceropegias are an interesting group of plants that have many common names including lantern flower, parasol flower, parachute flower, bushman’s pipe, string of hearts, snake creeper, wine-glass vine, rosary vine, necklace vine and condom flower which produces striking, malodorous blossoms shaped like a wine glass, often with glistening cilia to attract flies.
The flowers have a tubular corolla with 5 petals most often fused at the tips, forming an umbrella-like canopy, a cage, or appendage-like antennae. The flower tubes are lined with small hairs that point downward to form a trap for small flies that are attracted by their odor.
The insects are prevented from escaping until the hairs wither when the flower matures, the pollen of the Ceropegia flower being attached to the flies’ bodies when they escape.
The stems are vining or trailing in most species, though a few species from the Canary Islands have erect growth habits. Among some species such as Ceropegia woodii, the nodes swell, and the roots similarly expand to form tubers beneath the soil surface. The leaves are simple and opposite, although they can be rudimentary or absent. Especially in certain succulent species, the leaves may also be thick and fleshy.
Ceropegias have attracted much attention from botanists, horticulturalists, gardeners, and succulent enthusiasts. Carl Linnaeus, who first described this genus in volume 1 of his Species plantarum, which appeared in 1753, thought that the flowers looked like a fountain of wax. From this the scientific name was derived, ‘keros’ meaning wax and ‘pege’ meaning fountain.
Many Ceropegia species have been taken as ornamental houseplants, and some of these are commercially available. They can be propagated by seed and cuttings.
Sapranthus is a genus of flowering woody plants in the family Annonaceae that produces flowers which are pollinated by flies, and smell accordingly like decaying organic matter.A Costa Rican tree in the custard-apple family (Annonaceae) called “palanco” (Sapranthus palanga) bears cauliflorous blossoms on the main trunk. The flowers are purplish-black when mature and have a strong musky odor resembling a rotting carcass.
Sterculia foetida — Indian almond
Also known as the Indian almond, Java almond and colloquially termed the tropical chestnuts, the Sterculia foetida is a large rain forest tree of the Old World tropics that produces masses of small, reddish-orange flowers with a putrid stench. It produces edible seeds inside large, woody pods called follicles which are eaten raw, roasted or fried, but if consumed in excessive quantities the seeds may have a purgative effect.
The species name foetida is derived from the putrid odor of the blossoms.
Sterculia species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the leaf-miner Bucculatrix xenaula, which feeds exclusively on the genus.
Phallaceae — Stinkhorns
Phallaceae — or stinkhorns — are fungi from a family of basidiomycetes which produce a foul-scented, phallus-shaped mushroom. Rather than the typical method of reproduction for most mushrooms which use the air to spread their spores, Stinkhorns produce a sticky spore mass on their tip which has an odor of carrion or dung that attract flies. The insects land on the stinkhorn, thus collecting the spore mass on their legs and carry it to other locations.
These fungi have been said to be edible in their immature “egg” state with claims of a fishy taste when fried, but few people care to get past the foul smell in order to eat them.
Aseroe rubra — Anemone stinkhorn
Commonly known as the anemone stinkhorn and sea anemone fungus, Aseroe rubra is a common and widespread Australian basidiomycete fungus recognizable for its foul odor of carrion and its anemone shape when mature that also attracts flies which spread its spores. Found in gardens on mulch and in grassy areas, it resembles a red star-shaped structure covered in brownish slime on a white stalk.
Starting out as a partly buried whitish egg-shaped structure 1.25 inches (3 centimeters) in diameter, it bursts open as a hollow white stalk with reddish arms that erupt and grow to a height of 4 inches (10 centimeters).
It matures into a reddish star-shaped structure with 6 to 10 arms up to 1.5 inches (3.5 centimeters) long radiating from the central area. These arms are bifid (deeply divided into 2 limbs). The top of the fungus is covered with dark olive-brown slime or gleba, which smells of rotting meat. There is a cup-shaped volva at the base that is the remnants of the original egg.
This fairly common fungus is widely distributed in Australia from southeastern Queensland through New South Wales and eastern Victoria and Tasmania. It’s also found across the islands in the Pacific Ocean. A saprotroph, it’s found on woodchips and mulch and is common in gardens and amenities plantings, and also occurs in alpine grasslands and woodlands.
Phallus indusiatus — Veiled lady
Phallus indusiatus — also called long net stinkhorn and veiled lady — is a stinkhorn fungus, eaten as a vegetable (known in English as bamboo fungus or bamboo pith) in some cuisines of southern China, particularly that of the southwestern province of Yunnan, and called zhu sheng or zhu sun in Chinese.
According to an article in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, the smell of this fungus can trigger spontaneous orgasms in human females.
Mutinus caninus — Dog Stinkhorn
Mutinus caninus, commonly known as the Dog Stinkhorn, is a small thin, phallus-shaped woodland fungus with a dark tip which is usually curved. The column is very fragile, pitted, and cylindrical.
The tip is covered in the spore bearing matter (gleba) which is a dark olive-brown paste that possesses an irresistible smell to insects which help distribute the spores on their bodies, and in their stomachs. Beneath the spore mass the tip is dark orange. Although its smell is not as strong as the related common stinkhorn it has been described as smelling like cat feces.
This small member of the Phallaceae family emerges from an off-white egg-like fruiting body 0.8 to 1.6 inches (2 to 4 centimeters) high, and 0.4 to 0.8 inches (1 to 2 centimeters) wide that lies half buried in leaf litter on the woodland floor. White mycelial cords (rhizomorphs) are often visible beneath this ‘egg.’ The egg has a tough outer skin which covers a gelatinous inner layer, which in turn protects the fully formed, but un-expanded fruiting body.
When the egg splits open the fungus expands rapidly — usually within a few hours — to its full height of 4 to 5 inches (10-12 centimeters). It’s about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) thick, and is yellowish-white, yellow, or pale orange. The split egg is retained as a volva-like sack, at the base.
It’s not generally considered or recommended to be edible, although there are reports of the immature eggs being consumed. At least one report from West Virginia in the eastern United States strongly recommends the eggs peeled and fried as a tasty dish.
The fungi are often found growing in small groups on wood debris, or in leaf litter, during summer and autumn in Europe and eastern North America.
Sources: BBC and Wikipedia