Eau de Zombie? – The Malodorous “Voodoo Lilies” and “Corpse Flowers” – Why Do They Smell So Bad?

Signature Scents of Death & Decay

In a previous post, we explored the discovery that plants emit a wide array of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and that, because of this, sometimes plants stink.

But I think few would argue that the prize for the “stinkiest” plants would have to go to the “Voodoo Lilies” and “Corpse Flowers”.

Indeed, if you wanted to create perfumes for zombies, you probably could not find better ingredients than extracts from “Voodoo Lilies” or “Corpse Flowers”.

This is because these flowers produce what has been described as “the signature scents of death and decay”. Their odors are most often compared to the putrid smells of decaying flesh or rotting meat.

My current favorite description of a Voodoo Lily smell is: “Dead mice. For a couple of days. In a plastic bag that you then open up and take a whiff.” (from livescience.com)

(Of course, zombie perfumes already exist – see here and here, for example. The American Chemical Society even has a YouTube video on “Eau de Death”. Interestingly, its ingredients include chemicals called putrescine and cadaverine, both of which are polyamines that may have hormone-like biological activity in plants – more on this later.)

A Voodoo Lily By Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Bad

Although several plant species sometimes wear the moniker “voodoo lily”, they all have at least two things in common – (1) their flowers smell like rotting flesh or feces (2) they are all members of the plant family Araceae.

Both an online and a scholarly search revealed that several plant species are often referred to as “Voodoo Lily” (though none is classified by botanists as a true lily):

  • Sauromatum guttatum & Sauromatum venosum appear to be the most common examples in the scientific literature. (And are you ready for the taxonomic synonyms of these species? Here they are: Arisaema venosum, Arum venosum, Arum sessiliflorum, Desmesia venosum, and Typhonium venosum)
  • Dracunculus vulgaris has several common names, including “Voodoo Lily”.
  • Several species in the genus Amorphophallus have also been called “Voodoo Lily”.
  • Though many of the Voodoo Lily flowers may smell like a rotting corpse, the flowers of two other plant species Amorphophallus titanium and Rafflesia arnoldii appear (to me , at least) to most commonly share the title “Corpse Flower” (a.k.a., “Carrion Flower”).

    For neither “Voodoo Lily” nor “Corpse Flower” was I able to identify the originators of these common names. (Dear Reader – Please feel to jump in with a comment if you happen to know.)

    Why Do “Voodoo Lilies” and “Corpse Flowers” Smell So Bad?

    If you think that the main reason these flowers produce fragrances reminiscent of rotting meat or feces is to attract some insect pollinators, such as flies and scavenger beetles, you’d be correct.

    In a previous post entitled “Death and Pollination”, we saw how not only voodoo lilies but also other flowers, such as orchids, mimic the smell of carrion, which may attract a certain subset of potential pollinators. Such pollinators, especially flies, are also attracted to certain mushrooms, such as the Stinkhorn mushrooms (including the species Phallus impudicus), which also produces odors mimicking carrion or feces. (Since mushrooms are the sexual fruiting bodies of these fungi, the flies help disperse fungal spores.)

    An interesting evolutionary question is: Do diverse plant species, as well as some fungal species, use the same or similar scents of carrion or feces to attract the same type of pollinators/spore dispersers, namely, flies? And could this be an example of convergent evolution ?

    Some recent evidence seems to indicate that the answer is yes. For example: “We found that scents of both the fungus and angiosperms tended to contain compounds typical of carrion, such as oligosulphides, and of faeces, such as phenol, indole and p-cresol.” (From Ref. 1 below)

    Funghi (CC BY 2.0) by macinate

    A Stinkhorn Mushroom Funghi (CC BY 2.0) by macinate

    This was in general agreement with a previous study: “The odour released from the flower of the voodoo lily Sauromatum guttatum Araceae and the odour of the mushroom Phallus impudicus Phallaceae were analysed. The two species had the major constituents dimethyl disulphide and dimethyl trisulphide in common. Other major components of the S. guttatum excretion were β-caryophyllene, dimethyl sulphide, dimethyl tetrasulphide, indole and skatole. Linalool, trans-ocimene, and phenylacetaldehyde were released by P. impudicus.” (From: Ref. 2 below)

    So, the biochemical answer to the question: “Why do “Voodoo Lilies” and “Corpse Flowers” smell like rotting meat?” is mainly because they produce sulfur-containing organic compounds, in particular dimethyl disulphide and dimethyl trisulphide, as mentioned above. But these flowers also produce other volatile organic compounds that add to their appeal to certain flies and beetles.

    Though the precise nature of the chemicals responsible for the smell of “Voodoo Lilies” and “Corpse Flowers” is a complex subject, it has been nicely summarized as follows: “…there appear to be two major odour types among sapromyiophilous [pollinated by dung flies] Araceae: carrion smells (mainly oligosulphides) and dung-like odours (complex scent profiles with p-cresol, indole, 2-heptanone and others). Other aroids with distinct odours were generally dominated by one or two compounds, for example fish-scented species by trimethylamine and ‘cheesy’ pungent smelling species by isocaproic acid. (From Ref. 3 below)

    By the way, another reason that some “Voodoo Lilies” and Corpse Flowers” smell so intensely bad is that part of the flower may actually heat up in order to promote the volatilization of these foul-smelling organic compounds. (This subject was explored a bit in a previous post.)

    References

    1. Johnson, S. D. and A. Jürgens (2010) “Convergent evolution of carrion and faecal scent mimicry in fly-pollinated angiosperm flowers and a stinkhorn fungus.” South African Journal of Botany, Vol. 76, pp. 796–807. (Abstract)

    2. Borg-Karlson, A.-K., F. O. Englund, and C. R. Unelius (1994) “Dimethyl oligosulphides, major volatiles released from Sauromatum guttatum and Phallus impudicus.” Phytochemistry, Vol. 35, pp. 321–323. (Abstract)

    3. Jürgens, A., S. Dötterl and U. 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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