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Stopping to smell the stink

James Beattie

James Beattie

February 28, 2017

Flower scent is an evocative modality in gardens, often just as important as colour and texture. The smell of roses gave rise to a popular saying that reminds us to look closer and appreciate the beauty around us every minute of every day. There are so many plants loved for their scent that it’s impossible to list them all in a blog. Violets are perhaps one of my all-time favourites, followed closely by asiatic lilies. I don’t care much for roses but their scent can waft far from where their roots are in the ground.

This ability to waft far and wide continually impresses me more than their blooms ever do. The same goes for gardenias. Where I went to hort school there was a large Gardenia thunbergia that pumped out its scent so profusely on late summer evenings that its heady smell could be detected wafting some hundred meters or more from where the plant was in the gardens. Quite amazing.

Gardenia thunbergia


Yes, smell can seduce as much as any other sense. Perhaps more than any other sense. While we love flowers for their smells, plants don’t make themĀ for us. Far from it. It’s all to attract pollinators and while bees are the first that springs to mind there are thousand of other insects that pollinate flowers as well. Some have such specific relationships that only one species of insect will pollinate a single species of plant. The gardenia in I mentioned before only releases its scent in the evening because it’s pollinated by moths. Ditto for most nicotine species. Flies, too, pollinate flowers, but these fly-attracting plants are more likely to smell like a fresh cowpat or decomposing corpse than a gardenia.

The corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum


A couple of years ago a titan arum flowered at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and I managed to get along to see it. An interesting aside, the titan arum’s latin name, Amorphophallus titanum, translates to English literally as ‘giant deformed penis’ (it would give Lorena Bobbitt ideas, make no mistake). We arrived at the crack of dawn and being one of the first into the greenhouse after it had begun flowering the night before, we copped its stink head-on. It also goes by the common name corpse flower, however I would liken its scent more to a sailor’s old jockstrap before making the comparison with rotting flesh. It was certainly more BO than dead body.

Orbea lepida in flower


I was pruning some unruly hops the other day in the back garden and a small species of carrion flower (Orbea lepida) I’ve been growing for a few years came into view as I was pruning and, low and behold, it had a flower on it. It threatened to flower last year but the buds came to nothing, much to my frustration. I was over the moon to see it in flower. The flower is gorgeous but as I inched closer to it, I did so with slight trepidation. It can’t be that bad, I thought. So I jumped into the deep end and took a big whiff.

Orbea lepida flower – a total STINK


It absolutely stank. I can honestly say it made me wretch. No sooner had I almost thrown up, a fly came buzzing in to take a closer look at the flower. I guess attraction, like everything, is a matter of perspective.

This succulent species is a doddle to grow. In Melbourne, at least, Orbea lepida is easy. It’s happy in a pot – any succulent mix will do it just fine. In my garden it gets morning sun and it’s going gangbusters. I’m going to have to repot it this year, a process that will see bits of it, no doubt, break off. But it grows easily from cuttings as well, so you can fill your garden full of stink in no time for the price of a single plant.

It’s a great practical joke plant to this end, I freely admit to encouraging others to smell the flower when it catches their eye, which it invariably does.

“It smells like popcorn, make sure you take a big whiff,”

I suggest, trying to keep a straight face.

Have a go at it if you see it in a nursery. It’s wonderfully straight forward to grow and an oddity that really ‘wows’ visitors.

Until next time, stay smelly!

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