Death And Pollination

646px Satyrium pumilum 160403Some Pollinators Attracted By The Scent Of Death

Floral odors, produced by the vast majority of flowering plants, play important roles in plant–pollinator interactions.

A recent report of an orchid that attracts pollinators with the smell of carrion (see reference 1 below) reminded me of the infamous Voodoo lily, which was the subject of one of the professors in my department when I was a grad student.

Before I get to the Voodoo lily (a.k.a. “corpse flower”), what’s the story about this orchid?

From the abstract of ref 1:
Although pollination of plants that attract flies by resembling their carrion brood and food sites has been reported in several angiosperm families, there has been very little work done on the level of specificity in carrion mimicry systems and the importance of plant cues in mediating such specialization.

The authors, who are at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, studied the orchid Satyrium pumilum, native to the dry inland regions of the southwest cape of South Africa, and a local assemblage of carrion flies that pollinated this plant.

Briefly, from the conclusion of this paper:
“Satyrium pumilum selectively attracts flesh flies, probably because its relatively weak scent resembles that of the small carrion on which these flies predominate.

I’ve previously posted about the Voodoo lily (Sauromatum guttatum) with regard to thermogenesis in plants. But I didn’t tell much about the awful smell this flower produces.

The odor of the flowering Voodoo lily is somewhat infamous. Imagine what hamburger would smell like if a package of it sat inside a car in the summer, for about a week. It’s really that bad.

Turns out that some of the volatile chemical constituents of the odor produced by the Voodoo lily are also produced by the stinkhorn mushroom (see ref 2 below).

Botanical Term of the Day: “Sapromyiophily”

Hundreds of individual plant species from at least eight plant families “…emit odours reminiscent of rotting fish, carrion or dung. These odours mimic the substrate to which insects within the orders Coleoptera and Diptera (Wiens, 1978; Faegri & Van der Pijl, 1979) are usually attracted in order to oviposit or feed. The attraction of flies to brood-site and food mimics has given this distinct, deceptive pollination syndrome its common name: sapromyiophily. Sapromyiophilous flowers present adaptations to their special method of pollinator attraction involving situation, shape, colour, pattern, texture, scent, thermogenesis, motile appendages and changes of posture (Proctor et al., 1996). The plant families involved are diverse, yet they show both clear parallels between families and, nevertheless, a high variation within families.” (from ref 3 below, which is, by the way, a good reference source)

Bottom line: What’s in a name? That which we call a “corpse flower”, by any other name would smell as sweet…to a carrion fly. (apologies to W. Shakespeare)


1. Timotheüs van der Niet, Dennis M. Hansen and Steven D. Johnson (2011) “Carrion mimicry in a South African orchid: flowers attract a narrow subset of the fly assemblage on animal carcasses.” Annals of Botany, doi: 10.1093/aob/mcr048.
(Abstract PDF)

To see photos related to this paper, click here.

2. Anna-Karin Borg-Karlson, Finn O. Englund and C. Rikard Unelius (1994) “Dimethyl oligosulphides, major volatiles released from Sauromatum guttatum and Phallus impudicus.” Phytochemistry, vol. 35, pp. 321-323. (Abstract PDF)

3. Andreas Jürgens, Stefan Dötterl and Ulrich Meve (2006) “The chemical nature of fetid floral odours in stapeliads (Apocynaceae-Asclepiadoideae-Ceropegieae).” New Phytologist, vol. 172, pp. 452-468. (Full Text PDF)

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