The flower pictured above is called the European Dutchman’s Pipe. It looks like your typical flower, a soft shade of yellow on a leafy green stem. And like most other flowers, it emits an odor which attracts insects; these insects, in turn, grab some pollen from the flower. The insect then spreads the pollen around to other plants, allowing for the plant to reproduce. The insect, for its part, is acting in its own self-interest: it is getting a free meal out of the deal. This is just one of the many ways nature works its magic and perpetuates life.
But while most plants attract their insect co-dependants with a pleasant odor, the European Dutchman’s Pipe uses a different one: a pungent odor, at times described “like rotted meat.”
While this strategy is an uncommon one, it is not as rare as some may think. The flower is one of many such flowers called “carrion flowers,” given this name because of their distinct odor. The odor — as anyone who has left trash out in the sun too long can attest — attracts flies and gnats. This tactical tool of self-perpetuation is employed by no fewer than a dozen plant species across all six inhabited continents. Many of them, including the Dutchman’s Pipe, are described here.
In the case of the European Dutchman’s Pipe, the story gets a little bit stranger. The Pipe does not produce pollen at the same time that it emits its “attractive” odor; rather, for some odd (and unknown) reason, that part of its reproductive cycle comes a few days later. This causes a big problem for the plant, because the insects it attracts are like any other foraging insect: they want to eat and leave. So the Pipe takes matters into its own hands — or, rather, takes the insect into its own floral tube.
The insect, attracted by the smell of rotted meat, lands on the inside of the flower. But the flower is now slippery, coated in something akin to wax. The insect slides down the floral tube into a chamber where it remains trapped by the flower’s dense hairs for a few days. While imprisoned, however, the insect is very much alive — the flower provides it with food (nectar) for its stay. When the flower releases its pollen, it also releases its prisoner — the flower tilts sideways, the hairs wilt, and the insect crawls out to safety.
On the way out the insect picks up a coating of pollen. As such, it is now free to find another Pipe to take a vacation in, thereby carrying forth the lifecycle of this odd plant.
From the Archives: Plantable Paper: Paper which turns into plants (but which do not eat bugs).
Related: Bacon-scented soap.