Category Archives: Stinky Plants

The Devil’s Fingers, or The Octopus Stinkhorn

You say creepy like it’s a bad thing. In the world of Rotten Botany, there are few things more glorious than the moment when our Rotanists discover a plant they did not already know about. I recently happened upon the following video which shows time-lapse footage of the Clathrus archeri, aka Devil Finger Fungi aka Octopus Stinkhorn. The fungus can be seen “hatching” from its egg-like sac. And guess what it smells like after it has fully matured? Rotten flesh!  Its hope is to attract flies to spread the spores in its “tentacles.”

Clathrus archeri is native to Australia and New Zealand although it can be found introduced in forests in Europe and North America (they have been documented specifically at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz). If you see this fungtastic wonder, DO NOT APPROACH. It won’t harm you…well, actually, it could (see below) but we don’t want YOU to harm it. Take a photo, though, to share with rotanical lovers everywhere.

According to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens the unexpanded (not yet “hatched”) eggs of stinkhorns are considered a culinary delicacy in some countries but related species to C. ruber, have had reports of poisoning: eczema, convulsions, and sickness are anecdotally said to be the result of handling the Clathrus ruber fungus.  The related stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, has been used to treat wounds (with the dried “dust” or spores) to prevent infection.

 

 

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You Lousy Stinking Hellebore

Helleborus foetidus

Stinking Hellebore. Also Dungwort, Bear’s Foot

Family: Ranunculaceae

Not just a botanical insult the Stinking Hellebore is actually one of the least stinky of the foul-smelling plants. This shade loving perennial gets its name not from a foul flower but rather from the stinky smell when the leaves are stems are crushed. The classic variety of this Euro-and English native (also parts of Greece and Asia Minor) sports a pale green to yellowish-white, fice petaled flower but can even have purple edging. Hybrids commonly sold today include deeper purple flowers.

H. foetidus is a unique plant in that to date it is the only plant discovered that uses yeast to produce heat. According to an article in New Scientist from February, 2010 author Shanta Barley writes:

A European herb, the stinking hellebore, is the only plant discovered so far that relies on another organism to generate heat for it. Other plants, like the famous “corpse flower” whose blooms smell of rotting flesh, warm up by breaking down salicylic acid, or by tracking the sun’s movement.

 Which means that its nectar hosts colonies of yeast which it is believe attract certain pollinators. (This may also account for the issues I’ve always had with sticky aphids infesting my Stinking Hellebores!)
Plant in your garden in shade to part sun, this is a hardy and lovely addition to any garden. Grows to about 18″-24″ high and about as wide. Generally hardy to about 10 °F but I am told this can survive below zero in the right, well mulched and established garden bed. Moderate water. Great pollinator attractor, especially bees.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, causing violent vomiting and delirium. Ethnobotany, especially in the regions of Southern Italy, suggests that the poisonous qualities were used in folk medicine, including as an abortifacient. Decoctions of the leaves can be used as a topical treatment against parasites and fleas. The root of the plant is a heart stimulant.
H. foetidus is one of more than a dozen similar flowering perennials that belong to the Helleborus genus, with flowers that vary from white to pink to deep purple, nearly black. Check out hellebores.org for everything you ever wanted to know about hellebores! 
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Dead Horse Arum!

I love this photo because it has a fly on it!

Helicodiceros muscivorus

Dead horse Arum or Dead Horse Lily

Family: Araecea

(Synonyms are Helicodiceros crintius and Dracunculus crintitus–I prefer this one of course!)

This Mediterranean island native  is, next to the Corpse Plant, the category killer for rotten botanicals. Like it’s odoriferous cousins the Voodoo Lily and the Vampire Lily, The Dead Horse Arum lures flies and carrion beetles to its pollen coated stamen with the alluring smells of rotting meat, or rotting flesh of horses.(And like its cousins Voodoo and Vampire, it is also not really a lily.)

This beauty sports a wide inflorescence, with a somewhat phallic spadix (well, have you met a spadix that isn’t phallic?) which is made up of tiny male and female flowers. What is referred to as the flower is actually a modified leaf (spathe) plus spadix made up of tiny flowers. The spathe is moddled, usually a rich shade of red but can have some green and even white. The spadix is typically black or deep maroon.

The Dead Horse Arum is also one of a rare group of thermogenic plants. It can raise its own temperature, a handy trick to convince those flies that it really is hot, dead, flesh. How rotten is that? The Corpse Plant does this as well.

Incidentally, other plants that are thermogenic include the Elephant Ear philodendron and certain water lilies. Who knew?

Similar to other arums or aroids the Dead Horse Arum goes dormant. It is grown from a corm and likes a nice hummus rich soil, does great in containers, and can even withstand a bit of a temperature drop, as long as its buried snugly in a said hummus-y soil. I expect this would do well in most climates if kept in a container and properly mulched/brought into a hot house for the winter. That being said, I’m spoiled in my Mediterranean San Francisco climate and wonder if any of you inlanders, Southerners, or Northern Europeans have any experience growing this savory rotanical? Let us know !

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Dead Horse Arum Rises from the Earth

A reader of Rotten Botany gracioulsy sent me pictures of this gorgeous Dead Horse Arum that came up in the garden of her  home in the Sierra Foothills in spite of a heavy snowfall this winter. As she wrote to me, it is located in the back corner of the garden so its scent isn’t too permeating.

I agree with the owner that this is a Dead Horse Arum. The Arum Konjac or Devil’s Tongue has a red stamen, and the Voodoo Lily has a moddled stem. The Vampire Lily seems to have more of a ruffled edge to the flower but it does look similar to this. They are all members of the same Araceae family. mmmm..ARUMS!

Thanks, Mary A. for this amazing pictures. I have to admit, I am super jealous. I’ve always dreamed of moving into an overgrown garden with hidden creepers and fetid florals lurking beneath the ivy. Who planted this arum there? It was no accident. Read more about the Dead Horse Arum on Rotten Botany HERE.

And if you have pictures of any unsusal plants growing let me know!

Dead Horse Arum in GVArum in gardnedead horse arum two

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The Stinkvine! Paederia foetida

These pretty little flowers almost fool you into thinking this vine can’t stink!

Paederia foetida

Stinkvine, Skunkvine, Chinese Fever Vine,  Maile Pilau

Family: Rubiaceae

Native to temperate and tropical Asia

Naturalized in Melanesia, Polynesia and even Hawaii, though it is not native.  Considered an invasive weed in Florida and other parts of the Southern United States. It was introduced to the USA as a potential fiber plant in 1897. Oops!

Height: To 30 ft. though usually 20 or so.

USDA Zone 6a: to – 11. (Yep, really! That’s why it still thrives in Florida!)

From the looks of this baby you would not believe it stinks to holy hell (though its name would probably have tipped you off) because its delicate bi-colored flowers (white to pale yellow fading to pink/lilac and/or red) look like sweet little tubes of pretty. And that’s part of what makes this perennial, evergreen rotanical even more interesting. It’s flowers, actually, are not the fetid part. When you crush the leaves of this fantastic plant you get a horrid sulphuric smell, earning its name Stink Vine. The actual oils of the plant contain a sulphur compounds, including dimethyl disulphide.

Dimethyl disulphide is the same compound found in the Dead-Horse Arum and other rotten species that let off the smell of rotten meat in order to attract flies for pollination. (more on the Dead-Horse Arum next week!)

In Hawaii this is the main larval food plant for the Maile Pilau Hornworm, a hummingbird moth.

Interestingly, one of its common names Chinese Fever Flower, alludes to its other amazing properties. Ethnobotanically speaking, the Stink Vine and its sulphurous compounds contain a great deal of antioxidants and is used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, an immune booster, and has even shown potential as an anti-cancer agent. In Indonesia the leaves are traditionally served boiled with rice and sambal, often by street vendors. The leaves are also high in calcium and Vitamin C and very rich in potassium.

If you want to read a very nerdy but wonderful study of the Indonesian variety of Paederia foetida, click this link.

If you want to try and grow it in your own garden you’ll have the best luck in coastal climates that are mild or hot and muggy climates like Florida and Louisiana. In the right zone it can apparently can survive the occasionally cold snap. You can find seeds here:  Georgia Vines

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A New Rotanical Discovered!!!

A new species of Amorphophallus has recently been discovered !!! It isn’t quite as big as The Corpse Plant  (A. titanum)but seems to be just as wretched in scent. Amorphophallus perrieri possesses the unique adaptation of releasing a smell like death to attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flies just as its cousins the Corpse Plant and the Devil’s Tongue (A. konjac).

Growing some five feet big this thing could stink up the whole island of Madagascar where it was discovered. Apparently the botanist, Greg Walhert, was looking for violets when he happened upon this horror! What an amazing find.

Wahlert and his lab partner are affectionately referring to it as a Porta Potty Flower. Clearly this is a true rotanical deluxe.

You can read more about it here:

New “Porta Potty” Flower Discovered.

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The Beautiful Tongue of the Devil (A. konjac)

Amorphohallus konjac at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco

Devil’s Tongue

Amorphophallus konjac

Family: Araceae

Sometimes called the Devil’s Tongue and also referred to as the Voodoo Lily (but an entirely different species from the Voodoo Lily featured here) this beautiful specimen was caught blooming and befouling the entire Lowland Tropics gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers this weekend! And I count myself among the lucky few who got to “enjoy” this disgusting delight of the rottenest botanist variety.

According to the Conservatory of Flowers: “Our bloomer is an amorphophallus konjac. Despite its unsavory odor, it’s actually used to make candy! It’s gelatinous excretions can be an ingredient, however we featured it in Wicked Plants, as the gelatin can often be so thick that children have choked.”

Apparently this Jello-like substance is used as a vegan substitute for gelatin and is made into the popular Asian fruit jelly snack, Lychee cups. (Adults have been known to choke on these too.) In fact, a quick google search will lead you to a number of products that feature konjac. Fiber-rich vitamin supplements are made from the tuber, and thought to promote healthy digestion and weight loss. The tuber is used in soups and stews, and you can even buy konjac flour. However parts of the plant are known to be poisonous. O’ the wonders never cease!

This particular Amorphohallus blooms about once a year, though it can skip a year or two, and must be kept in the tropical hothouse temperatures of the conservatory’s greenhouse or steamy main gallery.

How best to describe the smell? Acrid, cloying–like the body of a roadkill animal left in the noonday sun. A touch sulfuric. This is the kind of smell you can’t quite place but you know you have smelled it before. It is the smell of decay. It reminded me most of the smell when you have left flowers in a vase too long and you finally decide to toss them, thus disturbing the putrid water that has been writhing with bacteria for a week or more. You dump it out and are aghast at the end result of what was a gorgeous, cheerful bouquet.

The Amorphohallus konjac is a true rotanical!!!

I would guess this plant is about two feet tall, from stem to the very top of its spadix, which sticks out considerably from its beautiful spathe. It is an incredible burgundy color, very velvety. If you dare get up close enough to examine it! It is tricky to see from the pictures but there is a sign to the left which will give you a bit of perspective. I tried to make my son stand next to it but he wasn’t having it!!

Culture~

Height: 18-24″ (can sometimes grow larger)

Hardiness: To about 10 degrees.

Plant in shade in sunnier climates, prefers more sun in foggier or cooler climates. Keep outdoors when blooming if you don’t want you house to smell like a toilet.

The Devil's Tongue at the C of F

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Amorphophallus Amungus

A quick note to let you know that the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco currently has a blooming stinky amophophallus. I am not sure what variety, but it does not appear to be a titan arum. There are more than 150 plants known as amorphohallus so I will report back on the exact kind when I return, and I will post pics too! 

It’s a rare, er, treat to see and smell one of these fantastic and foul beauties. They only bloom for a few days at most so you have a pretty brief window. And some species go for years in between blooms. 

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The Corpse Plant

The Corpse Flower

Amorphophallus titanum

Family: Araceae

Ah, The Corpse Plant also called The Corpse Flower, Amorphophallus titanum is the mother of all stinky arums. Often referred to as the Titan Arum, this plant is probably the ultimate Lovely Lily of Death (note: it is not actually a lily.) This plant is ENORMOUS! The leaf can grow up to twenty feet tall and wide, and the flower can grow to be up to nine feet tall. Like its distant cousins, the Voodoo Lily and the Black Calla, the Corpse Plant produces leaves every year but flowers less frequently. Usually it takes seven or so years of producing leaves, sucking up enough energy into the tuber to produce the massive inflorescence (which is actually a many smaller flowers stacked up to make the “one” bloom.)

The most distinguishing feature of the Titan Arum is its distinctive smell. When at last mature enough to produce a full fetid bloom beware! This thing smells like a rotting corpse. Probably more like a rotting carcass, like that of a dead whale or seal on a beach, than an actual human corpse, its foul smell also attracts visitors to whatever botanical garden is hosting the stink-party. I was a docent at the Conservatory of Flowers back  in 2005 when Ted the Titan, on loan from the UC Davis Botanical Gardens, bloomed in all its funky glory. People were lined up out the door of the Victorian conservatory just to get a glimpse, or in this case, a whiff. It is truly a sight to behold.

The flower looks like a giant version of the Voodoo or Vampire lily, with a massive spadix jutting out of its delicately ruffled outer petals. It has a blood-red interior and a green outer layer, often streaked with color like dripping blood!

The cultivation of such a plant is only recommended for individuals with very strong stomachs, decent biceps and good backs,  who are also in possession of a very, very large hothouse. It is native to Sumatra and does not like cold temperatures. The tuber alone on a mature plant can be over forty pounds!

Culture~

Height to 20 ft. (Flower to 9 ft.)

Requires warm temperatures, extremely high humidity. Even when dormant, do not expose to temperatures lower than 59 degrees.

This is Ted the Titan from the 2005 bloom at the SF Conservatory of Flowers.

Please note I did not take this photo though this is the same Corpse Flower I was lucky enough to spend time with. I got it from this guys website. He has tons of great photos and I hope he doesn’t mind that I snagged this. Full credit to: http://www.pbase.com/mtpuff/ted

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Vampire Lily

Vampire Lily

Dracunculus vulgaris

Family: Araceae

No rotten garden is complete without the beloved Vampire LilyDracunculus vulgaris. Also called the Dragon Arum, it is in the Araceae family along with the Black Calla, and sports one of the finest botanical names in the whole rotten world! Similar in appearance to the Black Calla and more so, the Voodoo Lily, the Vampire Lily produces multiple green stems that appeart to be splattered with blood. Its flower is a deep dark red and has a ruffled edge, and the spadix is long, blackish purple, and totally evil. Not unlike its Voodoo cousin its fading flower emits a smell like that of rotting flesh, designed to attract flies and carrion beetles that pollinate it.

Culture~

Height: 14”-20”

Hardiness: to 25º

Full sun in mild climates, partial shade in hotter climates.  Regular water, mulch only in coldest climates. Thrives on neglect. Do not over fertilize. Native to Mediterranean Europe.

Took this picture from Listverse's top 10 Coolest Plants

Note that I do own several Vampire Lillies, planted inside a giant blood red pot, but they are not in bloom right now (it is January!) so I took a picture from this link: http://listverse.com/2007/11/30/top-10-coolest-plants/
Which happens to have some other super cool plants that I love, like the Corpse Plant. I will get into that later.
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