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Why does the stink plant stink?

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Shouldn't those people be holding their noses? This rare blooming corpse flower is one of about a dozen or to have bloomed in the United States in the past century. See more corpse flower pictures.“Shouldn’t those people be holding their noses? This rare blooming corpse flower is one of about a dozen or to have bloomed in the United States in the past century. See more corpse flower pictures.David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Put yourself in the shoes of Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, trekking through the rainforest of Sumatra in 1878. The guy has spent days exploring the Indonesian island, surrounded by the rich, sweet aromas of the forest. As he heads toward the forest’s edge, he catches the faintest hint of rotten meat. Must be a dead monkey nearby.

Suddenly the wind shifts, and a stench floods his nostrils. The smell, a combination of spoiled eggs, dirty laundry and day-old roadkill, washes over him. Curious, the botanist looks back toward the source of the odor and spies a massive plant about 20 feet (6 meters) away. As he gets closer, he sees that a huge pillar taller than a man is rising from the plant’s leafy, red, vaselike structure. Moreover, the smell seems to be coming from the striking, unique plant. That’s just one potential scenario for how Beccari discovered the extremely rare and wonderful Titan Arum.

Although the Titan Arum looks like a flower, it’s technically an inflorescence, a group of flowers clustered around a central column known as a spadix and surrounded by a leafy structure called a spathe. Titan Arum, the world’s largest inflorescence, goes by several names. Its Indonesian name is bunga bangkai, which translates into "corpse flower." The plant’s scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, though this name comes from the plant’s rather, uh, distinctive shape instead of its smell (dust off your old Latin textbook to see what we mean). As Shakespeare might have put it, however, that which we call a corpse flower, by any other name, would smell as revolting.

Why does the corpse flower smell so terrible? To attract insects of course. Titan Arum is such a large plant that it can take a year or more for the plant to store enough energy to bloom (and even then, the plant can only sustain its bloom for a couple of days). Because Titan Arum plants are located so far apart from one another and bloom so infrequently, they need to attract as much insect attention as possible to ensure pollination. The corpse flower uses its smell to attract sweat bees and beetles looking for a prime location to lay their eggs. By crawling all over the plant, these insects play a vital role in pollinating the Titan Arum.

The plant’s distinctive smell is just one of its tricks for attracting insects. Read on to find out some of its others.

More Malodorous Plants and Carrion Flowers

We’ve already explored how the Titan Arum uses its noxious perfume to help with pollination, but the plant doesn’t stop there. Botanists also theorize that the plant’s fleshy pink color and unusually warm temperature (about the same as the human body) help complete the illusion that the plant is a giant hunk of decaying meat for insects to lay their eggs in. In addition, the plant uses its height and warmth (following the famous equation "bad smell + hot car = extra bad smell") to help spread waves of stench far and wide. In fact, insects can detect Titan Arum’s scent up to a half mile away [source: UNC Charlotte].

Titan Arum isn’t the only plant with an eye-watering stink, which may be why it works so hard to stand out from its malodorous brethren. Plants that reek of dead animals fittingly fall under the category of carrion flowers. Not only do carrion flowers smell like rotting meat, they also tend to look the part. For instance, the Stapelia asterias flower is coated with fine hairs that make the flower resemble moldy meat. Rafflesia arnoldi, the world’s largest flower, is another fleshy carrion flower located in the forests of Sumatra.

As beautiful as many carrion flowers are, you’ll never find one in a bouquet at your local florist. Not only do carrion flowers reek, many are also very rare and hard to grow. Still, none of these flowers seem to have the ability to turn stomachs like the Titan Arum, and the corpse flower wouldn’t have it any other way.

Keep reading for more gardening links you might like. 

The Durian Fruit

Flowers aren’t the only thing in the plant kingdom capable of making people hold their noses. The durian, an Asian fruit with a nutty, complex flavor, has such a pungent odor that some hotels and restaurants have banned it. The durian’s smell comes from sulfurous compounds, the same compounds you’d find in rotten eggs. And while many people find the smell objectionable, others go crazy for it. In fact, efforts to create a less stinky version of the fruit have been met with strong protest from the durian’s fans, who insist that the stronger the smell, the better the flavor.

Lots More Information

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  • Cross-Pollination
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More Great Links

  • Time Lapse Video of a Titan Arum

Sources

  • Armstrong, Wayne. "Not All Flowers Smell As Sweet As A Rose." Palomar College. 1997. (5/8/2009)http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0602.htm
  • Eastern Illinois University. "Amorphophallus titanum." (5/9/2009)http://www.eiu.edu/~biology/news/titan_arum.htm
  • Fuller, Thomas. "Fans Sour on Sweeter Version of Asia’s Smelliest Fruit."
  • New York Times. April 8, 2007. (5/8/2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/08/world/asia/08durian.html?fta=y
  • Pickrell, John. "Researchers Uncover Secrets of Giant ‘Corpse Flower.’" National Geographic. July 18, 2006. (5/8/2009)http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/07/0718_030718_stinkyflower.html
  • Schultz, Nora. "Giant stinking flower reveals a hot secret." New Scientist. Dec. 22, 2008. (5/8/2009)http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16316-giant-stinking-flower-reveals-a-hot-secret.html
  • Tebbitt, Mark. "Blooming of Amorphophallus titanum (corpse flower) at BBG." August 2006. (5/8/2009)http://www.bbg.org/vis2/2006/titan/info/history.html
  • UNC Charlotte. "Bella, The Titan Arum." (5/9/2009)http://gardens.uncc.edu/plant-garden-info/titan-arum.html
  • Wilson, Elizabeth K. "A Fantastic Stink." Chemical and Engineering News. June 30, 2009. (5/8/2009)http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/8126/8126giantplant.html

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