What a Scent-sation!

By Jennifer Garrison
Education Director at Mercer Botanic Gardens

Spring is in the air at Mercer Botanic Gardens, but roses, jasmine, gardenia, and honeysuckle aren’t the only flowers scenting the gardens. Mercer’s odorous oddities are also hard at work, producing rancid smells like carrion, stale body odor, and vomit. Follow your nose to find these foul-smelling plants throughout the gardens.

 

Longevity Spinach (Gynura procumbens)
Sunflower Family
This low-growing, edible evergreen, native to Africa and Asia, is cultivated for medicinal purposes and as a leafy vegetable. It produces yellow flowers resembling dandelions in spring and summer that smell like stale body odor. The intense aroma combined with the yellow-orange color of the flowers attracts plenty of nectar-seeking pollinators. This plant’s leaves can be used in place of spinach and eaten fresh in salads, blended into a smoothie, sautéed in garlic and olive oil, or added to soups and stews.

Location:

  • Tropical Garden
  • Pollinator Garden

Bloom time:

  • Spring
  • Summer

 

Starfish Flower (Stapelia gigantea)
Dogbane Family
This succulent, native to Africa, is best known for its oversized, star-shaped flowers that smell like rotten meat, detectable even from a distance. The flower’s color, hair-like fibers, and smell mimic carrion, attracting insects like flies and beetles. Some flies will even lay their eggs on the bloom, thinking their larvae will feast on old meat.
Location:

  • The Courtyard

Bloom time:

  • Autumn, but only if the season is long and warm.

 

Parsley Hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)
Rose Family
Parsley hawthorn is a small, deciduous, Texas native tree named for its parsley-shaped leaves. The dainty, white flowers that appear in spring smell of decomposing flesh, attracting carrion insects. It develops bright red berries in fall that birds and mammals enjoy. The edible fruit is suitable for humans raw, dried, or cooked into jellies if the cyanide-containing seeds are removed. Its ornamental foliage turns an attractive shade of orange before falling out in winter, revealing an eye-catching display of bare, thorny branches.
Location:

  • Endangered Species and Native Plant Garden
  • Azalea Plaza

Bloom time:

  • Spring

Cannonball Tree (Couroupita guianensis)
Brazil Nut Family
The cannonball tree is native to South America’s northeastern rainforests. Pinkish-red, sweet-smelling flowers form on the trunk and on large, old branches and develop into round, heavy fruits resembling cannonballs. On windy days, the clanking of the fruits sound like explosions. As the fruits ripen, they drop to the ground with a loud, explosive thud. The fruits break open when they hit the ground to expose a fetid-smelling pulp.
Location:

  • Tropical Garden
  • This specimen is brought indoors during the winter, as it is not cold hardy.

Fruiting time:

  • Mercer’s tree is currently too young to produce fruit.

 

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Ginkgo Family
Native to southern China, the deciduous maidenhair tree, or ginkgo tree, is the only surviving species of an ancient plant group whose fossil record dates back more than 150 million years. The unique, fan-shaped leaves of the maidenhair tree turn a brilliant yellow in autumn. Maidenhair trees are dioecious, meaning there are individual male and female trees. The female trees produce nuts in fleshy, fruit-like cones. When the cones fall to the ground and the flesh begins to rot, a vomit-like stench wafts through the air. The smell intensifies in summer when the fruits ripen and drop.
Locations:

  • Prehistoric Garden
  • Azalea Plaza
  • Storey Lake

Fruit time:

  • Summer
  • Mercer’s trees are currently too young to produce fruit.

 

Voodoo Lily (Amorphophallus konjac)
Arum Family
The large group of aroids, also known as voodoo lilies, are an exotic addition to any backyard flowerbed or patio container garden. Native to tropical Asia, Amorphophallus konjac forms edible, carbohydrate-rich corms, or stems, that are a food staple in many countries worldwide. The corm contains calcium oxalate crystals, which is a toxic substance. However, these crystals break down when the corm is dried or cooked. Mature corms of this frost-tender perennial will form a single flower in late winter or early spring. This flower grows up to 3 feet tall and produces a foul odor, like rotting flesh. This stench attracts the voodoo lily’s pollinators – flies and beetles. After flowering, A. konjac forms a sturdy 3-foot tall leaf stalk topped by a leaf divided into leaflets.
Location:

  • Prehistoric Garden
  • Tropical Garden

Bloom time:

  • Late winter
  • Early spring

 

Elephant Foot Yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius)
Unlike its smelly relative, the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), the stinky elephant foot yam grows quite prolifically at Mercer Botanic Gardens. In late spring and early summer, the red wine-colored, brain-like flower of this tropical Asian native emits a rotten stench. The smell and look of the flower mimic rotting meat and attract its pollinators – flies and beetles. After flowering, a 5-foot-tall, tree-like leaf emerges. Like A. konjac, the corm of the elephant foot yam is a carbohydrate-rich food source often used in stews and curries in Asian countries. It must be prepared correctly before consuming to remove the toxic calcium oxalate crystals.
Location:

  • Near the Prehistoric Garden

Bloom time:

  • Late spring
  • Early summer