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27th November, 2006

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The gorgeous stinker

As I pottered in the vegetable garden the other day, I kept wondering where the dead animal was hiding. The stench of decaying flesh was pretty overpowering. I hadn't added any broken-necked, window-whacking kamikaze birds to the compost that I could remember. And then it struck me — it's that time of year again! Sure enough, a turn of the head in the right direction quickly revealed, hidden among some tall weedy grass, our stink lily (as I'm wont to call it), known to many gardeners as the Voodoo Lily or Dragon Lily and to scientists as Dracunculis vulgaris (aka Arum dracunculus)! Native to Mediterranean Europe, it does well in many parts of the world as an exotic. As I sit at my desk a few days later with the windows open, the smell from the flowers growing a foot or two from the rear window is extending its tentacles inside; but only weakly, because the path of air through my office goes out that window, thankfully.

The odor may be revolting, but the feast the flowers present the eyes makes the price worth it! In a silly fit of naughtiness I planted a bulb next to the footpath a few years back in expectation of some indignant responses from passersby, and promptly forgot all about it. (Why else would God have created them if not for such purposes?) A year or two later, my next door neighbor accosted me over the fence and asked if I had planted the stink lily. I was caught by surprise, as I had not walked that direction in recent days and was unaware it had flowered. Expecting to be neighborily scolded, I sheepishly ‘fessed up to the foul deed. Her response took me aback: “It's beautiful”, she said quite approvingly. (I know she is quite deaf, but I hadn't realized she was olfactorily-challenged, too.) You have to stand downwind to appreciate its perfume, but its beauty regales the eyes no matter where you stand.

And phantasmagorical it is, no doubts about it. Like all arum lilies, it consists of a pencil-like spadix nestled inside a strange-shaped petal called the spathe. In the stink lily's case, the spadix is a dark chocolatey color, and the spathe is a rich, royal maroon. The whole structure sometimes grows up to three feet long out of a leafy stalk up to six feet tall. Foot-long flowers are more the norm.

This flower delights those who believe

in creation and irritates those who don't. How did this species survive for millions of years before it learned the trick of emulating the stench of rotten flesh? You see, like a number of other smelly flowers, this deceptive plant requires the services of carrion flies or beetles that lay their eggs in smelly, moist places for its pollination. Larvae that hatch from the eggs are doomed to perish, but they give their lives in a noble cause — the perpetuation of the gorgeous lily. No smell, goodbye world!

How on earth could a lily learn the complex chemical trickery of copying decaying meat? Intelligent chemists take many years in some cases to figure out how to synthesize complex organic chemicals, yet these flowers are supposed to have mastered the manufacture of volatile dimethyl oligosulphides — the active ingredients in decomposing proteins — by means of lucky mutation. Oh sure!

The usual argument will be made that before Dracunculus learned to stink its ancestor was pollinated by some other insect attracted by some other means, like other more respectable members of the arum lily family. But it just doesn't work that way. Other insects are not attracted to this species. Switching to pollination by pong-seekers would require immediate and precise changes in the plant's pollen-bearing structures to match the anatomy of the new pollinators. As Mary Batten says, “Most plants are surprisingly picky. They evolve specialized structures that attract only a few pollinators or perhaps just one. At the same time, the pollinators develop various structures and behaviors that enable them to harvest a particular plant's nectar or pollen” (Science Digest, October 1983, p. 60). In the case of the stink lily, two specimens in Seattle were found to attract fifteen different species of beetle; quite possibly only one or two had what it took to service the plant. How have plants proven so successful in changing structures at just the right moment to match new methods of enticing new pollinators? They have shown that pushing one's luck to the limits seems to work. After all, if they make a mistake and don't get the two just right at precisely the same moment, extinction would be their lot. Evolution has to go down as by far history's most successful gambler. Oh sure!

There's a Dracunculus vulgaris growing in the bottom of my garden (and I'm a lousy photographer). To see some good pics, click here


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