The late afternoon air is quite suddenly full of the intense aroma of rotting flesh. It wafts across the garden in an almost visible cloud and settles around us. Quite a contrast to the subtle scents that most usually fill our warm tropical evenings this one demands immediate attention. I grab my camera and let the drone of flies lead me to the newly emerged flower of Amorphophallus paeoniifolius.
Amorphophallus paeoniifolius also known as Elephant Yam due to the size of the underground tuber.
Occurring from India to New Guinea as well as in tropical parts of Australia this bizarre plant is dormant through the dry season, producing its solitary flower in response to rainfall. A single large spadix topped by a fleshy, foul smelling wrinkly knob with a spathe surrounding the entire flower. Carrion flies and beetles are attracted to the smell and perform a valuable service as pollinators. The Green Ants (Oecophylla sp) on the spathe appeared to be feeding on dead insects, they are not recorded as pollinators.
Before returning to the house I treated my nose to a breath of Gardenia ‘Wild Wings’ (our accidental hybrid) followed by a whiff of Bloomfield Penda (Xanthostemon verticillatus). Olfactory balance easily restored.
Nov. 4th Time for the afternoon watering in the growing house – an enjoyable activity which allows for thought and appreciation of our environment as a warm and sunny tropical day draws to a close. I love the aromas which the slightly cooler air seems to enhance but on this afternoon I detect the smell of rotting flesh. As I’m watering I am thinking about what could have died as well as trying to work out exactly where the smell is coming from. Then a possibility occurs to me and following the sound of buzzing flies as I returned to the house I found this ……
and the source of the rotting flesh smell. Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, known as Stink Lily or Elephant foot yam is in the Aroid family (Araceae) and is found from India to New Guinea and in the far northern parts of Queensland. Apparently the flower not only exudes this unusual aroma but also gives off heat – this information was given to us a few days later by some botanist friends when the flower had passed its peak.
The flowers are on a spadix which is under the bulbous knob, just visible in the bottom right-hand corner of this photo. They are pollinated by carrion flies and beetles and although flies were certainly attracted, in this case pollination does not appear to have taken place.
July 6th Two days later – the spadix has pushed up a bit further and it is possible to see the male and female flowers. The bulbous top has lost its sheen and looks slightly shriveled – and the flies seem to have lost interest. The smell only lasts a few hours so although it is extraordinarily pervasive it is only short-lived. The bulbous top looks its best for about 24 hours while the spathe continues to look decorative for several days but today Nov 12th the entire flower remains are shriveled and brown.
Close-up views of the flowers on the spadix
Amorphophallus paeoniifolius has Peony-like foliage as described by the species name. The single leaf is borne on a mottled stem after the flower has died. The production of the leaf uses most of the starch stored in the corm – the plant produces a new corm after the leaf has wilted and died.
The corms of some varieties are edible and grown as food crops in several Asian countries. I am not about to dig our one plant up and consume the corm, we grow Taro in our vegetable patch which is a much better addition to vegetable curries.