Kicking up a stink

Date posted: 03 May 2016

Mere months after our second Corpse Flower (titan arum), Ganteng, unleashed its decaying stench into the world at Adelaide Botanic Garden, it seems some of our other plants have got ideas.

A bold red fungus (see image gallery, right) was recently spotted by visitor Shayne Calliss near the Australian Forest and it had him scratching his head. After some sleuthing, with the help from the State Herbarium's fungus expert Pam Catcheside, we realised it's the aptly named starfish or stinkhorn fungus (Aseroe rubra), which was the first native Australian fungus to be formally described in 1800.

Even more intriguing about the eye-catching specimen - it produces spore slime that has an intense smell of rotting meat or faeces. Yuck! The smell attracts flies, which trample over the plant and then help spread its spores.

Not far from our funky fungus (north-west of the Economic Garden) a handful of female Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees have started dropping their fruit that, when squashed, smell similar to that of vomit or off cheese!

The suspect stench is caused by the presence of butyric acid in the seed's pulp - a substance you'll also find in rancid butter and vomit.

The nuts inside (not smelly) are a delicacy in Asian cooking and the Ginkgo tree - native to China - also has various uses in traditional medicine.

Even so, perhaps watch (or smell) your step when in the vicinity of these otherwise beautiful trees!

There are scores of plants around the world that emit disgusting odours. Carrion flowers (like the titan arum and Helicodiceros muscivorus aka dead horse arum lily) are often described as smelling like rotting flesh. Asia's durian fruit have been described as smelling like "turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock". Southern Africa's Hydnora africana is reputed to smell like faeces. Meantime North America's Symplocarpus foetidus (commonly known as skunk cabbage) smells like... well, you get it.

Many of these plants, like the stinkhorn fungus and titan arum, emit their signature stench to attract pollinators, which is mighty fine for the plants and bugs, but not so great for human noses!

We'll be sure to let you know next time a pongy plant makes an appearance in the Garden next.

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