Ah, flowers. What wonderful things they are, with their soft, colorful petals and their delicate fragrance of… corpses and feces?
Yes, indeed. While many flowers smell pleasant or neutral, there are a significant number of plant species whose flowers take a different approach to odor. Whether this serves to attract pollinators or discourage herbivores, one thing is certain: these are (probably) not the flowers you’d want in your garden!
Read on to learn more.
1. Rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii) — above
This handsome Indonesian flower, one of several plants with the nickname “corpse flower,” has the largest flower in the world. It also happens to stink of decaying flesh, which helps attract flies to pollinate it. It’s unfortunately somewhat rare, as its forest habitats are disappearing.
2. Gingko tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Gingko doesn’t technically have flowers; instead, its reproductive parts are pollen cones (male) or ovules (female). The smell of the ovules, when fallen, can be poetically described as smelling like rancid butter, vomit, or rotten eggs. Yum!
3. Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)
You’ve probably heard of this plant before, since it has the largest unbranched inflorescence (or flower cluster) in the world. When it blooms, it gives off a strong smell of rotting meat. This helps attract its favorite pollinators, carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies. It also serves well to startle any humans in the vicinity.
Photo Credit: US Botanic Garden. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
4. Wake-robin (Trillium erectum)
This is one beautiful blossom! Its name comes from the fact that, like the European Robin, it’s considered to be a herald of springtime (since that is when its flowers appear). It also happens to be yet another plant that is pollinated by flies, so it has a strong smell of rotting meat. Be sure to admire it from a distance.
Photo Credit: Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us(personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
5. Durian (Durio sp.)
You may have heard of the durian fruit, a tasty delicacy from Southeast Asia that has such an overpowering, old-gym-socks odor that it’s sometimes banned from hotels and public transportation. Did you know that its flowers are almost as stinky as the fruit? Their scent is similar to that of sour butter or curdled milk.
The stapelia, which comes from South Africa, is yet another flower that harnesses the power of flies to achieve its pollination ends. Thus, the flower has a strong scent of carrion. This scent is so convincing that flies, tricked into thinking it’s a genuine carcass, often lay their eggs on the plant.
7. Paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus)
Paperwhites are a divisive issue among flower fans: while some people love the smell of paperwhites and think of them as a vital part of the winter holiday season, other people insist that they smell disgustingly like pee (or alternately, bug spray and dirty diapers).
8. Java-Olive (Sterculia foetida)
The odor of this tree, which grows throughout parts of Africa, Australia, and Asia, is emphasized by its scientific name: the genus name Sterculia comes from the Roman god Sterculius, who was a god of (agricultural) fertilization—specifically, he was said to oversee the manuring of the fields. Meanwhile, foetida adds in a meaning of “stinking” or “fetid.” The flowers have a strong stench of dung, so much so that standing near one of these trees is a similar experience to standing next to an open sewer.
9. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
Black cohosh grows in woodlands throughout eastern North America, and is sometimes sold as an herbal preparation to help menopause symptoms. Its flowers are tall, white, and decorative, hence its beautiful common name of “fairy candle.” However, they are also remarkably fetid; the stench can hit you from several feet away.
10. Hydnora africana
It would be an understatement to describe Hydnora africana as “weird.” It doesn’t photosynthesize and has no chlorophyll; while it’s classified as a plant, it’s similar to fungi in its habits. The plant itself grows underground, living as a parasite on the roots of other plants. You’d never know it was there if it wasn’t for its fleshy flower, which emerges from the ground to attract pollinators (yes, the picture above is a flower, not some hungry alien).
Like many of the plants on this list, it advertises itself to pollinators by emitting a strong odor—in this case, a stink of feces, designed to appeal to dung and carrion beetles. Unlike the other plants on this list, it doesn’t just let its pollinators fly by; instead, it actually traps the poor beetles in its flower tube, where they must stay until the flower is completely opened.