Plants are supposed to release fresh floral aromas, right? Not always! There are certain plants hidden among roses and daisies that pack a pungent odor and will stink up your garden. The foul odors are often likened to skunky, rancid stench or rotting flesh. But plants that make your garden stink exist for a reason.
Why do some plants smell bad?
- To communicate: A key form of communication for plants is the scents they produce. These smells are a combination of complex chemicals or volatile organic compounds that evaporate and spread through the air to lure pollinators and repel predators. Plants can have sweet fragrances and floral scents, herby and fresh scents, or a filthy stench.
- To attract less common pollinators: Bees and butterflies are drawn to your garden by sweet scents from fragrant flowers.
Some lesser-known pollinators like beetles and flies perform the same function for equally uncommon plants. Most of these plants bear fleshy flowers that are often covered with hair, essentially looking and smelling like decaying flesh to the pollinators. The scents attract insects who inadvertently pollinate the plants or sometimes even lay eggs in their smelly flowers.
- To survive better: At least five different plant families have independently evolved the ability to mimic nasty smells and attract pollinating insects, according to a study by Jürgens.
Their independent evolution strategy is an example of convergent evolution, which occurs when different species create a new “type” and find different ways of surviving.
Evolutionary convergence is usually a result of natural selection and unrelated or distantly related species evolve similar coloration, body forms, and adaptations to become more protected or unpalatable.
Stinky plants to avoid
Here are some foul-smelling plants that you should avoid putting in your garden:
The corpse flower holds the title of “the worst smelling flower in the world” and it smells just like a rotting, stinking corpse. With their vase-like exterior that packs tons of smelly flowers inside, called an inflorescence, these blooms are huge draws at greenhouses all over the globe.
Titan arum has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world and will typically stretch past 10 feet tall. Its name translates into “giant misshapen phallus,” which holds true as the collar-like structure called spathe spreads unevenly.
This flower blooms only once every four to six years and lasts only for 24 to 48 hours. The putrid smell of its rare blooms lingers in the air for days. The principal pollinators of this plant are carrion beetles and flesh flies that like to lay their eggs in dead things.
- Scientific name: Amorphophallus titanum
- Plant type: Herbaceous flowering perennial
- Native to: Western Indonesia; equatorial rainforests of central Sumatra
- Ideal growing conditions: Filtered sunlight or partial shade with well-draining soil
- Mature plant height: Up to 12 feet
- Hardiness zone: Not applicable (only grown in specialized, high temperature and high humidity conditions)
Skunk cabbage looks a little better than the rest of the foul-smelling flowers, but it still stinks. It releases a rotten-flesh odor that’s super attractive to flies, stoneflies, and beetles. As the name suggests, it smells like a roadkill skunk to attract insects that pollinate it. But the plant releases this odor only when it’s stepped on or crushed. Otherwise, if left on its own, the odor isn’t an overwhelming one.
This flower is tiny in comparison to the corpse flower but produces large spadix and surrounding spathe. The plant features a purplish-green, mottled spathe surrounding a central spadix that’s usually yellow and covered with tiny flowers. It emerges early in the spring and sprouts more leaves throughout the spring till late summer and eventually ends up looking like a large, alien cabbage.
Skunk cabbage has a rare feature that allows it to generate internal heat, then the blooming stem will get hot. The heat released from the stem melts away the snow around the plant, providing easy access to pollinators. Internal heat also allows the flower to come up and stay above the snow-covered grounds. This stinky plant is consumed by bears as a laxative when they come out of hibernation.
Interestingly, young skunk cabbage leaves are edible, and this smelly plant is also known for its medicinal qualities. It’s used in the treatment of epilepsy, asthma, rheumatism, and coughs.
- Scientific name: Lysichiton americanus
- Plant type: Perennial fleshy herb
- Native to: Swamps of the Pacific Northwest
- Ideal growing conditions: Full or partial sunlight with wet and fertile soil
- Mature plant height: 2-4 feet
- Hardiness zone: 5-9
Crown imperial is a late spring bloomer that is famous for its unusual look and, of course, the undeniable smell that is described as “sweaty,” “foxy” or “sulfurous.” Some say it’s phenolic, while others refer to its smell as straight-up skunky. Even the bulbs reek of a sulfurous terpene stench, which is likely a defense mechanism against predators.
Crown fritillary bears orange, red, or yellow bell-shaped, drooping flowers that grow in clusters and look beautiful but smell dreadful. Each flower faces the ground and is crowned by leaves, which gives it a royal look. The distinctive musky, skunk-like odor is often a plus for gardeners as it keeps away mice, squirrels, and other rodents.
- Scientific name: Fritillaria imperialis
- Plant type: Perennial bulb
- Native to: West Asia and the Middle East; Western Iran, mountainous regions of Turkey, and east Kashmir
- Ideal growing conditions: Full sun or partial shade with well-draining or sandy soil
- Mature plant height: 2-5 feet tall
- Hardiness Zones: 5-9
Dead horse arum lily
This plant produces a stench like a rotting dead horse to attract tons of flies and blowflies (a type of carrion fly) which are its primary pollinators. It has a hairy, dark spadix and spathe that won’t unroll if the weather is cloudy. It waits for a sunny day to unroll, spread its scent, and attract flies.
When the flower unrolls on a sunny day and releases its smell, only the female flowers are receptive and lure flies deep into the hairy spadix. Flies get trapped inside for the entire day, while the male flowers shed their pollen the next day. Pollen-coated flies then leave the flower and move around to pollinate other arum lilies.
Other than smelling like death, arum lily has a weird ability to heat itself up. This feature is termed thermogenesis, which means self-regulation of body temperature. In the case of dead horse plant, it’s an added advantage because a warm flower seems more inviting to pollinating flies.
- Scientific name: Helicodiceros muscivorus
- Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
- Native to: Sardinia and Corsica
- Ideal growing conditions: Full sun near water or partial shade with cool, moist soil
- Mature plant height: 2-3 foot
- Hardiness Zones: 8-10
This flower comes with many nicknames, from Zulu giant, toad flower, and carrion flower to starfish flower. Most names reflect its four-sided star shape. The flesh-colored flower is also covered with white, tiny hairs that aid in attracting maggots and flies inside the central orifice. It has a leathery, wrinkly texture that’s believed to mimic a dead animal’s rotting flesh.
While this stinky plant does its best to appear as a dead carcass, it’s still used by gardeners to repel small rodents. When a carrion flower blooms, it produces a fleshy, large, five-pointed star on a thick, fleshy stem. It releases a rotten stench that isn’t quite as offensive as some other plants on this list.
- Scientific name: Stapelia gigantea
- Plant type: Succulent perennial
- Native to: Deserts of South Africa and Tanzania
- Ideal growing conditions: Full sun and well-draining soil
- Mature plant height: 8-12 inches
- Hardiness Zones: 9-10
Stinking corpse lily
Another one of the less fragrant plants, nicknamed a corpse flower, is Rafflesia arnoldii, which smells and even looks like a rotting carcass. These stinkers are the largest individual flowers on earth and smell like rotting carrion.
The flower has a large central opening surrounded by petal-like structures and can grow huge, weighing up to 24 pounds. It’s a parasitic flower that doesn’t have any stems, leaves, roots, or chlorophyll. It gets all its nutrition and water from its host Tetrastigma vine. The corpse lily grows as thread-like fiber in this vine and is very hard to find in the wild.
When it matures and is ready to reproduce, it’ll grow a cabbage-like lump which will open up only for a few days after a year of its eruption. It then grows round fruits that have tons of seeds inside, ready to be spread by forest animals.
- Scientific name: Rafflesia arnoldii
- Plant type: Holoparasitic perennial
- Native to: Rainforests of BorneoMalay peninsula and Sumatra in Indonesia
- Ideal growing conditions: Only needs Tetrastigma vine to grow
- Mature plant height: 7-12 feet tall and 3 feet wide
- Hardiness Zones: Supposedly native to zone 13
Flowering pear tree
One of the colorful, stinking flowering plants is the Pyrus calleryana, which blooms in the spring. The fruit beckons wildlife while the white flowers add beauty to any landscape. The blossoms turn bronzy or purplish in the fall, and they release an unpleasant fragrance that’s said to smell like dead fish or cat urine. This foul smell comes from butyric acid in the flowers.
- Scientific name: Pyrus calleryana “Bradford”
- Plant type: Deciduous flowering perennial
- Native to: China and Vietnam
- Ideal growing conditions: Full sun, partial or no shade with moist soil
- Mature plant height: 16-26 feet
- Hardiness Zones: 5-9
Ginkgo is a beautiful tree, with its bright yellow, fan-shaped leaves that turn golden in the autumn. It’s a great addition to any garden unless you accidentally plant female ginkgo instead of male. This is because female trees produce smelly and messy fruit that contains butyric acid – which mimics the putrid smell of stomach acid.
- Scientific name: Gingko biloba
- Plant type: Deciduous flowering perennial
- Native to: China
- Ideal growing conditions: Full sun with moist soil
- Mature plant height: 50-8- feet tall, 30-40 feet wide
- Hardiness Zones: 4-9
A. Corpse flowers typically bloom between mid-afternoon and late evening and will stay open for 12 hours at least. Some flowers even remain open for the next 24-36 hours.
A. Smell is a vital form of communication for plants. They attract different types of pollinators with the help of their scents. Bad-smelling plants attract flies, beetles, and some other insects for pollination. Humans can also benefit from stinking garden plants by planting them to repel rodents and critters from their garden.
While they might smell bad, there’s no denying that plants that can make your garden stink are interesting wonders of nature. But if you’ve accidentally got one of these and don’t wish to be anywhere near a foul-smelling plant, let our lawn love pros take care of it.