Plants That Smell Like Death – Stinking Corpse Lily, Starfish Cactus + More!

This post may contain affiliate links which means we may earn a small commission at no cost to you if you make a purchase using these links. See our full Affiliate Disclosure.

The giant corpse flower, titan arum, is enjoying more popularity than ever with at least half a dozen blooms each year in the United States, each attracting huge crowds of 100,000 or more people lining up to catch a glimpse (and whiff) of the plant that smells like death.

Titan arum may be rare, but there are actually hundreds of species of carrion plants that stink like death and rotting flesh. Many of them you can even grow yourself as a houseplant or in the garden.

Here are some of the most interesting flowers that smell like death. This is certainly not an exhaustive list by any means!

Amorphophallus Carrion Flower Species

The Amorphophallus genus, part of the Araceae family, is better known as the aroid or arum plant family. The arum family also includes the monstera genus. The name amorphophallus, derived from Ancient Greek for “misshapen penis,” makes sense given the unique shape and inflorescence of amorphophallus corpse plants.

The most famous amorphophallus species is the giant corpse plant, but there are more than 100 other carrion flowers in the same genus. There’s usually at least one new species discovered every year.

Several species of Amorphophallus carrion plants have been tested and have aromas that include anise, fish, urine, dung, cheese, spice, chocolate, and rotting meat.

Amorphophallus Titanum – A. Titanium or Titan Arum

  • Leaf reaches up to 23 feet tall during non-flowering years; inflorescence during bloom reaches up to 10 feet tall
  • Largest corm recorded at 339 pounds
  • Native to Sumatran rainforests in Indonesia
  • Endangered with fewer than 1,000 specimens estimated in the wild

The endangered A. titanum is the most famous “death plant” and it’s what most people think of when imagining a plant that smells like death.

The name “titan arum” comes from Sir David Attenborough. While filming the BBC series The Private Lives of Plants, he decided to call it the titan arum because he thought viewers would be offended by repeatedly using the plant’s Latin name, Amorphophallus titanum.

Also known as the flower that blooms and dies in one day, it was first described in 1878 and flowered in cultivation for the first time in 1889 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

Issempa – © W. Barthlott, Bot. Gard. Bonn

Between 1889 and 2008, there were only 157 instances in which a corpse flower bloomed. However, corpse flowers are blooming far more frequently in the United States in the past decade with seven blooms within months in 2016 alone – and scientists aren’t sure why.

One theory is botanical gardens and greenhouses share seeds with each other and most carrion flowers blooming close together are related. Another theory is there are simply more titan arums in botanical gardens given their popularity.

Chemical analysis of the spadix of the corpse flower has found the bloomed corpse flower has an aroma caused by:

  • Dimethyl trisulfide (Limburger cheese and cooked onions)
  • Dimethyl disulfide (unpleasant garlic aroma)
  • Trimethylamine (rotting fish and ammonia)
  • Benzyl alcohol (sweet and floral like hyacinth and jasmine)
  • Isovaleric acid (sweaty socks)
  • Phenol (sweet and medicinal like Chloraseptic)
  • Indole (sickly sweet, ripe, and earthy or like mothballs at high concentrations.)

Check out the Death Scent Project for an interesting read on indole and its role in sex and death.

Giant Corpse Flower Facts

What does the corpse flower smell like?

The famous plant that smells like death has a scent described as rotting flesh or rancid meat, old fish, and old sweaty socks.

What is the corpse flower bloom cycle?

During most years, titan arum goes through a leaf cycle with a spike that emerges from the corm and grows into a large leaf with complex leaflets that gather energy from the sun to store in the corm. After a year or so, the leaf structure collapses and the plant goes dormant.

The corpse flower requires years to store enough energy in its corm to flower, but the flowering process happens rapidly. A spike will emerge from the corm after a dormant period and, within a week, the frills of the flower’s spathe will be visible. During the corpse flower bloom cycle, the plant will grow rapidly: up to 6” a day!

It takes about 2 weeks for the inflorescence to fully develop. The corpse flower has male and female flowers that mature on separate days to avoid self-pollination. When the spathe opens, usually in the late afternoon, the female flower is receptive to pollination. The spadix will heat up to about 99 °F (37 °C) to transform the chemicals it produces into a vapor and mimic the temperature of rotting meat. The flower will begin to wilt after about 12 hours.

How often does a corpse flower bloom?

A blooming corpse flower is a rare occurrence. The plant only blooms when it has the energy, about once every 6 to 9 years. There’s no way to predict how often a plant will flower; it usually takes up to 10 years for the initial bloom but subsequent blooms may occur every 2-3 years or every decade. The bloom lasts for about 24 to 36 hours then collapses without fertilization. Wilting usually starts within 12 hours.

The plant will store energy and bloom again when it can. If fertilized, the corpse flower will develop fruit. Fruiting usually requires so much energy that it kills the plant.

How many corpse flowers are there?

The titan arum carrion plant is very rare in cultivation. There are about 100 cultivated corpse flowers around the world that are known, but likely more in greenhouses and botanical gardens as seeds are shared. You can see records of most bloomed corpse flowers in cultivation here.

Giant Corpse Flower blooming at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2022, © Olive and Pineapple

Amorphophallus Perrieri

A recently discovered Amorphophallus species is Amorphophallus perrieri, found in 2006 by University of Utah botanist Greg Wahlert. It was named for the French botanist who actually collected samples of the plant a century ago without realizing it was a new species. It’s found in Madagascar and two islands off the coast.

A. perrieri is just a quarter the size of A. titanium but produces a flower that smells like rotting flesh and feces. Wahlert described the plant’s rapid growth: it transformed from a small bud sticking out of the ground to a stalk of nearly 4 feet with a spadix about 10” long within two weeks.

They are just so rude — their appearance and smell. Everybody I’ve talked to says they almost started puking when they smelled it. It’s horrid.

Lynn Bohs, University of Utah biology professor

Amorphophallus Konjac – Voodoo Lily, Devil’s Tongue, Konjac, or Elephant Yam

Amorphophallus konjac looks like a smaller version of the famous titan arum corpse flower with dark maroon to purple coloring.

A. konjac is one of the most unique carrion flowers because it’s cultivated as a food source in China and Japan. Sometimes known as the konjac yam, konjac potato, or the Devil’s Tongue yam, the corm is only safe to eat when cooked. In Japan, the corm of the konjac plant is used to make konjac flour and jelly.

The konjac plant flowers every year, creating a flower that reeks of rotting flesh to attract midges and flies. It’s thermogenic like other Amorphophallus plants to heat the spadix and increase the strength of the pungent aroma.

Konjac is a perennial and can survive in USDA hardiness zones 6-11. It can be grown in the ground or a planter for its decorative and unique foliage. The larger the tuber grows, the larger the leaf it will develop with may be up to four feet across. The voodoo lily can reach up to 4-6 feet tall.

Other Aroid Carrion Flowers – Araceae Family

The Aroideae subfamily of Araceae or arum family includes not only the famous Amorphophallus carrion plants and other popular genera like Monstera, Philodendron, and Caladium but several other species of carrion flowers.

Dracunculus Vulgaris – Dragon Lily, Vampire Lily, or Black Arum

D. vulgaris is one of just two species in the Dracunculus genus. Known as the vampire lily or dragon arum, its long spadix resembles a tiny dragon hiding in the plant’s spathe. This corpse flower is thermogenic and heats itself to 65°F (18°C). The smell of the mature flower is described as rotting meat.

Dracunculus vulgaris is native to the Balkans including Crete, Greece, and the Aegean Islands. It has also been introduced to many areas of northern Europe and North America including Ohio, Kansas, Oregon, Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Washington state in the U.S.

Helicodiceros Muscivorus – Dead Horse Arum Lily

The dead horse arum lily is the only species in the Helicodiceros genus and native to Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. It’s one of the most unique Araceae carrion plant species, the inflorescence resembles a dead mammal’s anal area. Like a handful of other arum plants, it’s thermogenic and its ability to produce heat using an uncoupling protein is actively being studied.

The dead horse arum lily flower is often described as smelling like rotting meat, as the name implies. The dead horse arum uses thermogenesis to strengthen this aroma to attract blowflies. At its peak, the plant’s temperature is 54°F (12.4 °C) higher than the ambient temperature!

Sauromatum Venosum – Voodoo Lily or Monarch of the East

This striking voodoo lily is native to Africa and Asia and produces a large inflorescence with a yellow spathe covered by a purple spadix and purple spots. It’s commonly cultivated as an ornamental plant but the flower emits a putrid odor compared to rotting meat. Like A. titanium and the dead horse arum lily, S. venosum is thermogenic and produces heat to increase the strength and reach of its odor.

Stinking Corpse Lily – Monster Flower Rafflesia Genus

Rafflesia arnoldii, also known as the giant padma, corpse flower, or stinking corpse lily, is one of the most interesting and recognizable corpse flowers. It produces the largest flower on earth with a diameter of 3.3 feet (one meter) and a weight of 24 pounds (11 kg). The titan arum has a larger flowering organ, but its unbranched inflorescence is actually a dense cluster of flowers.

The Rafflesia plant is parasitic on the Tetrastigma leucostaphylum vine which it needs to survive and reproduce. Rafflesia arnoldii grows as a mass of tissue strands that are entirely embedded within the host from which it draws nutrients and water. The only time Rafflesia is seen outside the host is when it’s time to reproduce. The massive, red-brown, smelly flowers are the only part of Rafflesia that is recognizable as a plant.

When ready to reproduce, R. arnoldii develops a tiny bud outside the stem or root of the host plant which develops over the course of a year. Eventually, the cabbage-like flower bud opens to reveal the giant flower with a strong, putrid odor of rotting meat to attract beetles and flies. Flowers may be male or female, but the pollinating insects must visit first the male plant then the female plant for successful pollination.

To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and had there been no witnesses, I should, I think, have been fearful of mentioning the dimensions of this flower, so much does it exceed every flower I have seen or heard of.

Joseph Arnold, the first British person to see the Rafflesia arnoldii

Succulent Plants that Smell like Death – Dogbane or Milkweed Family

There are several genera of carrion flowers in the milkweed or dogbane family. These species have been reclassified many times and you’ll often see them referred to a former name such as Orbea variegata, formerly Stapelia variegata.

Carrion plant succulents are usually leafless, branching stem succulents. The stems of the Stapelia, Orbea, and Heurnia genera are generally four-angled and may have toothed edges, but some genera and species have six or more angles like Hoodia plants.

Succulent carrion plants are famous for their star-shaped flowers that smell like rotting meat. The flowers can be as small as a few millimeters to up to 16” in diameter. However, while some species produce flowers with incredibly strong odors, other species have blooms you won’t be able to smell – even if the flies still smell it! It can be challenging or impossible to tell the difference between some species until they bloom.

Stapelia flavopurpurea flower

Orbea Plant Genus

There are about 30 species of clumping carrion plants in the Orbea genus. Orbea plants feature smooth stems with starfish-like tubercles that taper to a tip. The Orbea genus of succulents are native to southern and eastern Africa. Orbea comes from the Latin word “orbis” which means disc or circle.

Here are a few of the most common and striking examples.

Orbea Variegata – Starfish Plant, Starfish Cactus, or Toad Plant

Orbea variegata from Fijiplants @ Etsy

What does the starfish flower smell like? The Orbea variegata flower smells like death with a quite strong odor. The maroon-speckled flowers are up to 3″ in diameter.

Want to grow your own? You can find the starfish cactus for sale on Amazon or above at Etsy and learn everything you need to know with our Orbea variegata care guide.

Orbea Dummeri

This Orbea species produces a beautiful pale green-yellow to olive green, star-shaped flower with a hairy surface. The flowers are about 1.5″ in diameter with a faint, sour odor.

It’s one of the most common stapeliads in Kenya.

Orbea dummeri from AllAboutSucculentsFL @ Etsy

Orbea Lutea

© RBG Kew

Sometimes known as the Yellow Carrion Flower, Orbea lutea produces clusters of up to two dozen bright canary yellow to mustard yellow flowers with very thin, long corolla lobes. Like most orbea species, the flowers smell like rotting meat.

Stapelia Plant Genus

Stapelia are the most well-known succulent carrion plants. There are 55 stapelia plant species, most native to South Africa. These low-growing and spineless stem succulents have striking flowers in a range of colors. Stapelia plants can grow to 1 inch to 6 feet tall, depending on the species. Most Stapelia flowers are visibly hairy and produce a weak to extremely strong odor of rotting meat.

Stapelia Gigantea – Zulu Giant

Stapelia gigantea or Zulu Giant is one of the most widely available stapeliads for cultivation – and one of the most striking! Also known simply as toad plant and carrion plant, S. gigantea grows up to 8” (20 cm) tall and produces very large star shaped flowers up to 9.8” (25 cm) in diameter. The silky flowers are fringed with hairs and have a red and yellow, wrinkled appearance.

The Stapelia gigantea plant has a strong odor of rotting flesh due to sulfur compounds, phenolic molecules, and diamines produced by the flower. You can find the Stapelia gigantea for sale on Amazon or Etsy!

Stapelia Grandiflora – Giant Toad Plant

Stapelia grandiflora, better known as the starfish cactus, giant toad plant, or starfish flower, is a popular stapeliad that’s smaller than the Zulu giant with even more striking corpse flowers. Depending on the variety, S. grandiflora can produce star shaped flowers in a variety of colors, usually shades of purple.

Find it for sale on Etsy from sellers like OurGardenTreasures.

Edithcolea Grandis – Persian Carpet Flower

This gorgeous carrion flower is in the Asclepiadoideae subfamily of the Apocynaceae dogbane family. It’s the only species in the Edithcolea genus.

The Persian carpet flower produces branched, angled stems with hard, tooth-like spines. Its flowers that smell like death form at the apex of branches and attract flies for pollination.

The stems of Edithcolea grandis reach up to 12″ long with flowers up to 5″ in diameter.

The stems are eaten in the Horn of Africa as a vegetable.

Edithcolea grandis can be cultivated! You can buy Edithcolea grandis live plants @ Etsy or try growing it from seeds from Amazon.

Huernia Plant Genus

© Enzo^

The Huernia plant genus is another stapeliad genus closely related to the Tavaresia, Stapelia, and Hoodia genera. The Huernia carrion flower is five-lobed like most stapeliads but it has a bell or funnel shape with vividly contrasting stripes or a matte color with a wrinkled appearance.

Huernia zebrina is one of the most common species for cultivation. It’s known as the little owl or the Lifesaver Cactus.

Want to grow your own? You can buy a live Lifesaver Cactus @ Amazon or find dozens of live Huernia plants @ Etsy!

Hoodia Plant Genus

Hoodia gordonii © Winfried Bruenken

The genus Hoodia is, like most Asclepiadoideae carrion flowers, native to Southern Africa. There are 25 accepted Hoodia plant species which are most closely related to the Lavrania genus of stapeliads.

Hoodia gordonii brought national attention to the plants when it was marketed falsely as an appetite suppressant. Ho. gordonii is one of the larger species of Hoodia with large flowers that are pink-tan and have an unpleasant aroma. Larger Hoodia species tend to produce larger, lighter-colored flowers with more mild odors than the dark-colored, small flowers of other species.

The largest species of Hoodia, Ho. parviflora, can grow nearly 7 feet (2 meters) tall.

Duvalia Plant Genus

Duvalia corderoyi © Michael Wolf

The Duvalia plant genus in the dogbane family is native to southern Africa and includes 19 species. These succulents produce a star flower at the base of their stems with five thin, long lobes that radiate from a central disc. The star shaped flower is usually a reddish brown or maroon color.

Duvalia plants like D. corderoyi can be purchased and cultivated and do not produce a noticeably foul odor like many stapeliads.

Pseudolithos Plant Genus

Native to Yemen, Oman, and Somalia, Pseudolithos (or “false stone”) plants have a distinctive pebbly or warty appearance and very small size. There are eight known species of Pseudolithos. They are most closely related to the Caralluma species of stapeliads in North America. It produces small, red, star shaped flowers.

P. migiurtinus © Abu Shawka

Pseudolithos succulents can be cultivated, but they are uncommon and expensive. They are even more prone to rot than most succulents and may turn to mush with virtually no warning due to overwatering or underwatering.

Piaranthus Genus

P. geminatus var. geminatus, © Michael Wolf

The genus Piaranthus includes 16 stapeliads closely related to Orbea and Stapelia genera. Native only to the western area of Southern Africa, Piaranthus plants form spreading mats of small, compact stems. Each stem can produce star shaped flowers. The flowers come in a range of colors depending on the species.

Most Piaranthus flowers have a foul odor like rotting meat, especially brown and dark red flowers unlike the light yellow flowers of Piaranthus parvulus or P. geminatus.

Tavaresia Genus

POWO © Ori Fragman-Sapir

The Tavaresia genus of succulents is most closely related to the Huernia genus and the same branch of stapeliads that includes the more well-known Stapelia and Orbea genera. Tavaresia plants resemble cacti even more than most stapeliads with spiny stems and sharply pointed bristles. There are four known Tavaresia “carrion cactus” species. The most well-known species are T. angolensis (Devil’s Trumpet) and T. barklyi (Thimble Flower).

Corpse Orchid – Bulbophyllum Genus

Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis © C T Johansson

Orchids are famous for using mimicry to achieve pollination. Nearly one-third of the 30,000+ orchid species use deception to attract pollinators rather than pollen or nectar. One species, Dendrobium sinese, mimics the alarm pheromone of the honey bee to attract the European beewolf hornet in search of prey.

In the Bulbophyllum genus of orchids, many species instead mimic the odor of rotting carcasses to attract flies and beetles as pollinators. Depending on the species of corpse orchid, the flower aroma can resemble blood, urine, feces, or rotting flesh.

Bubophyllum beccarii, native to Borneo, is the largest orchid in the genus with a corpse flower compared to an entire herd of elephants decomposing in the sun. Bulbophyllum fletcherainum, also known as the Spies’ bulbophyllum or tongue orchid, attracts carrion beetles and blowflies with a similarly overwhelming odor released by spike-shaped, maroon blossoms.

The rare Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, which flowered in the United Kingdom for the first time in 2019, is rarely seen outside its native Papua New Guinea. The flower head or inflorescence has a cluster of meat-colored flowers with projections that resemble wriggling maggots on a corpse. This orchid is famous for its pungent aroma described as dead rats and rotting fish. When it blooms, the greenhouse is nearly uninhabitable.

Like a thousand dead elephants rotting in the sun.

Early description of the blossoms of the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis

Variegated Pineapple Lily

Eucomis bicolor, better known as the variegated pineapple lily, is a perennial ornamental plant that grows from a bulb. It’s not related to lilies or the pineapple plant; its name comes from its resemblance to a colorful pineapple with tall leaves topping an inflorescence of purple and pale green flowers. E. bicolor ‘Alba’ is a popular cultivar of the plant with plain white flowers and no purple coloration.

Not all pineapple lily varieties have an unpleasant smell of old potatoes, sweaty socks, and rotting meat; some do not smell like much of anything!

Aristolochia Grandiflora – Pelican Flower

The pelican flower is a deciduous vine native to Central America and the Caribbean. It produces one of the largest flowers in the world that smell strongly of rotting meat. The unique heart-shaped flowers are up to 8” wide with tails up to 24” long. The distinctive aroma is the result of a combination of essential oils.

Another Aristolochia species, A. gigantea, is called the giant pelican flower. It creates huge, vibrant flowers that have a strong floral aroma that attracts the pipeline swallowtail butterfly which, confusing it with its native host, lays eggs even though the caterpillars can’t survive on the foliage and die. A. grandiflora, on the other hand, is a food source for swallowtail butterfly larvae. When the butterflies consume the plant’s terpenes, they become unpalatable to most predators.

Trillium Carrion Flowers

Red trillium © Geoffrey.landis

Trillium, also known as birthwort, birthroot, toadshade, wakerobin, and wood lily, is a genus of around 50 plants in the Melanthiaceae family. Trillium is one of the few carrion plants native to the United States and Canada with most species found in the southern Appalachian Mountains region of the southeast.

Two species of trillium are infamous in the U.S. as plants that stink: Trillium erectum (red trillium or stinking Benjamin) and Trillium foetidissimum (stinking trillium, fetid trillium or Mississippi River wakerobin).

Trillium may be a stinky plant, but the fetid smell is usually fairly mild, especially compared to Amorphophallus species and stapeliads. Trillium flowers have a foul smell described as rotting meat and wet dog.

Can You Grow a Corpse Flower?

The most famous death plant, the A. titanum giant corpse plant, isn’t just enormous and difficult to grow, it’s also very rare. The good news is there are many species of carrion flowers you can grow – and you won’t need to wait 10 years to experience the famous corpse flower smell for yourself.

(Of course, you can definitely give titan arum a try if you have a greenhouse and patience!)

Want to grow your own corpse flower? Here are some you can buy on Amazon!

H. zebrina, Lifesaver Cactus
Lifesaver Cactus, Red Dragon & Black Bells
Stapelia gigantea, Zulu Giant

Here are some recommendations and links to Etsy sellers that offer cuttings and live plants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top