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What’s That Stench? – The Corpse Flower & Other Fetid Flowers

This past August, the Denver area was captivated by another blooming of a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Large crowds lined up to get their chance to get a whiff of the bloom that emits a fragrance similar to a rotting animal carcass. I was one of the masses of plant geeks who waited in line early on a Friday morning before work, just to get a glimpse and a sniff of the malodorous corpse flower. The first bloom of an Amorphophallus titanum plant doesn’t appear until after 8-20 years of vegetative growth. A second bloom from a corpse flower may not occur until as long as 10 years after the previous bloom. Although this was the Denver Botanic Gardens third bloom of a corpse flower, the rare occurrence for a bloom (along with the plant’s other odd characteristics) leads to a lot of excitement for botanical enthusiasts.

Amorphophallus titanum photographed at the Denver Botanic Gardens on August 31, 2018.

The foul stench of the bloom is not as interesting as the giant size and fascinating form of the flower. This Indonesian rain forest native sports a huge flower (it is actually many flowers, aka an inflorescence, grouped together on one fleshy axis, what botanists call a spadix) that is unlike any flower that grows in North America. In fact, botanists tell us it is the “largest unbranched inflorescence in the world”. The massive size of the flower is the source of another common name for it, the Titan Arum. That common name was bestowed by the British naturalist and TV host Sir David Attenborough for his BBC series “The Secret Life of Plants”. Mr. Attenborough felt that repeatedly calling the plant by its botanical genus name Amorphophallus (Greek for misshapen phallus) was “too rude for television audiences”.

Readers are likely familiar with other plants that bear spadixes such as the common houseplant, the Peace Lily (aka Spathiphyllum, related to the corpse flower, and also in the Arum family of plants). Unlike the inflorescences of the peace lily which are around 6 inches in length, the corpse flower inflorescence can grow as tall as 10 feet, although the one at the Denver Botanic Gardens (nicknamed “Stinky”), was probably closer to 4 or 5 feet tall. In the center of the flower is the large and somewhat crumpled looking spadix. Framing the giant spadix, is a wine colored skirt-like apparatus that appears to be a type of flower petal, but in actuality is called a spathe. The spathe is a modified leaf which helps protect the spadix.

Aside from the fascinating scale and form of the corpse flower, the rank stench it produced was curious as well. While viewing the bloom, I would describe the acrid scent as similar to an infant’s dirty diaper. There are several repulsive chemicals released during its peak bloom period. Scientists have recorded a range of compounds emitted by the corpse flower that are also found in limburger cheese, animal feces, stinky feet, and dead fish, along with some other not so foul compounds. The exact foul fragrant mix emanating from the flower might vary hourly from rotting fish to rancid cheese throughout the blooming time. All of these nauseating notes are released as the plant is able to heat itself up to 90 degrees Farenheit, helping to volatilize the stench and get noticed by pollinating insects that might pass by. The increased heat of the bloom is theorized to also give the illusion of a recently deceased animal carcass.

Before we look at other stinky flowers, it is interesting to note that there are about 170 other species closely related to Amorphophallus titanum. Botanists report that many of these 170 species emit various unpleasant odors that range from rotting meat to rancid cheese. And size of flower does not translate to the power of stench. Some of the smaller species stink the most. However, some of the 170 species actually smell pleasant to humans, such as A. haematospadix, that smells of banana, and A. manta which smells of chocolate.

While the corpse flower may get all the attention for being one of the world’s most unpleasant floral scents, there are many other fetid flowers that are lesser known, but are just as notable for their “disagreeable odors”.  Apparently emitting foul odors has been ecologically successful for several species. And of course, what humans may consider a foul stench, a carrion beetle may interpret as a false “dinner bell”.

Now on to the list of a few of the other unpleasantly scented flowers:

Rafflesia arnoldii – Another so-called “corpse flower”, this one is also native to Sumatra, Indonesia, like the other corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium) that recently bloomed in the Denver Botanic Gardens greenhouse. This corpse flower is quite rare, and is a parasite on the host Tetrastigma leucostaphylum. It is said to have one of the largest (1m wide) individual flowers in the world, and has no roots or leaves. Most of its life is spent inside the stems and roots of its host. Rafflesia arnoldii only becomes visible when its flower buds break through the bark of the host and form into the large flowers, which like Amorphophallus titanium, also smell like rotting animal flesh. Unlike Amorphophallus titanium, Rafflesia arnoldii is very difficult to grow in cultivation.

Frittillaria agrestis  -This flower from the lily family, commonly referred to as stinkbells, is purported to smell like dog feces. It is endemic to California.

Frittillaria imperialis –This is another flowering plant from the lily family, commonly called  “emperor lily”. It’s native to Iraq, Iran and other parts of Central Asia, and has showy blooms that have endeared it to horticulturalists who’ve brought it into wide cultivation. The flowers are said to smell like skunk. Others say they have a “distinctly foxy odor” which repels mice, moles and other small animals.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) – This weedy tree, originally native to China, but now present in many urban and other disturbed sites in North America, emits a slightly unpleasant scent from its flowers. The smell is akin to rotting garbage. The leaves and green stems of Ailanthus also smell unpleasant when cut. The Chinese name for this tree, chouchun translates to “foul smelling tree”.

Hawthorne trees – (Crataegus, various species) These beautiful trees are a useful ornamental tree to have in a xeriscape garden. They are tough and beautiful drought survivors. However pretty the white flowers are in springtime, they do not, in my opinion, have a pleasant scent. Some observers have likened it to being like ‘power bait’, the fish lure. Luckily, it is not a very strong or long lived odor.

Lysichiton americanus – Western Skunk Cabbage. This North American native is a distant relative of the Amorphophallus titanum, as they are both members of the Araceae family. It is native to wet areas of the Pacific Northwest. As the name suggests, it emits a “skunky” odor.

These are just a few of the many unpleasantly scented plants to be found in our world. Perhaps you have one you would place in this group of foul smelling botanicals?

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

 

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Photo of the Day: Zinnia Floral Diversity

These photos show a sampling of the diversity of color and form that annual Zinnia flowers can exhibit.

 

I have recently become a fan of the old garden stand-by, the Zinnia. The garden Zinnia was a favorite annual of yesteryear, and seems to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity of late.

The Zinnia genus contains annuals, perennials and shrubs. All the Zinnia species are native to our hemisphere, in an area that stretches from the southwestern U.S. down to South America.

The most common annual Zinnia you can purchase as seed or as bedding plants is likely to be Zinnia elegans or Zinnia haageana.  Plant breeders have created many Zinnia cultivars over the years. Annual Zinnias are easy to grow from seed, and do very well in my growing conditions in Colorado.

One thing I’ve only noticed after I started growing them is the great variety of color and form that the flowers exhibit. There seems to be an endless supply of different colors, forms, and sizes that annual Zinnia flowers will exhibit.

The photos shown above are a small selection of the diversity of Zinnias you can grow in your garden. Some of these zinnias I grew from seed in my garden, and some of them are growing in the Denver Botanic Gardens. Most of the Zinnias pictured here are cultivars of Zinnia elegans. A couple of them might be cultivars of Zinnia haageana.

Bees and butterflies seem to love Zinnia flowers, too. The recent migration of Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies that passed through Denver, brought a plethora of butterflies feasting on my Zinnias. And in the evening, several bumble bees (genus Bombus) could be found sleeping on the underside of some of the zinny flowers in my yard, after they had spent a busy day buzzing from one Zinnia flower to another.

Zinnias are so easy to start from seed, that I recommend you try to grow some in your yard at the start of the next garden season.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

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Photo of the Day: Awesome Artichokes

Many of the annual and vegetable plants at the Denver Botanic Gardens are at their peak right now, and looking amazing. This photo of an artichoke plant in bloom was captured in the garden’s Potager Garden area. Artichokes are typically known as a food crop, with several cultivars grown worldwide, but many horticulturalists like to grow it as an interesting ornamental plant. Their large leaves and spiky flowers add a wonderful sculptural form to the garden. It is my understanding that on a typical artichoke farm, the flower buds are harvested and sent to market well before they open. In these photos we see that the flowers have been allowed to open, providing a stunning display for garden visitors.

Artichokes look a lot like thistles. And it turns out, artichokes are indeed related to thistles, with both plants being members of the very large family of plants that botanists call the Asteraceae.

The historical record holds that artichoke cultivation as a food goes back as far as ancient Greek and Roman times. It is likely that the Greeks brought artichoke cultivation to Italy. Some historians posit that cultivation of artichokes was further developed and improved upon in medieval Muslim Spain. The name artichoke can be traced to the medieval Arabic term “ardi shawki“.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

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Photo of the Day: Hollyhock Mallow

I had never heard of a Hollyhock Mallow, but I came upon this delightful plant while visiting a friend last month. This interesting horticultural specimen was blooming in my friend’s neighbor’s yard. The profusion of pink blooms caught my attention from the corner of my eye, and I instantly raced over to get a closer look. Initially the flowers brought to mind common hollyhocks, but the form of this plant and the leaves were not quite the same as true hollyhocks. It took a little bit of internet sleuthing to arrive at the conclusion of what the plant was. I am still trying to learn more about this plant to determine if it is a good addition to the list of perennial plants for low water gardens.

Hollyhock Mallow, aka Malva alcea, is native to parts of Europe and Central Asia. As the common name implies, it is related to common hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) that many a grandmother has grown from seeds. Malva alcea is an herbaceous perennial that grows about 4′ in height, by 2-3′ wide. It has moderate water needs, but reportedly is drought tolerant. Unfortunately, it can fall prey to Japanese beetles, foliar nematodes, leafhoppers and spider mites. I wonder if it is plagued by the same leaf problems that make common hollyhocks look so beleaguered towards the end of the growing season. In some regions of the U.S. it has escaped cultivation and become naturalized. I do not know if it is invasive in Colorado. I look forward to learning more about this plant, and possibly testing it out in my own garden beds.

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Photo of the Day: Echinocereus Cactus at Kendrick Lake Gardens

June is finally here, which gets me thinking about cactus flowers. I wanted to share these photos I took of a gorgeous flowering cactus that was growing in a park called Kendrick Lake Park, located in Lakewood, Colorado.

The xeriscape gardens at Kendrick Lake are quite impressive. June is a good time to visit for the chance to see the various cacti  that dot the gardens, blooming in their early summer glory. On an interesting botanical note, I recently learned from cactus expert Kelly Grummon’s website (coldhardycactus.com) that in order for these cacti to bloom, one of the criteria is a cold enough winter. “If a cactus doesn’t get enough cold weather, it will not flower normally in the spring”, he says.

At first I thought the cactus in these photos was Echinocereus ‘White Sands’. But upon further inspection of the flower color and the size and density of the spines, I am guessing it might possibly be some variety of Echinocereus reichenbachii. Whatever species of cactus it happens to be, it is stunning to see it when blooming.

I recommend visiting Kendrick Lake in June to enjoy the cactus blooms, as well as many other stunning flowering xeriscape plants on display.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

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