Garden Stinkers.

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David Stuart
looks at some bad smells in the garden.

Floral scents are strange and complicated things designed to appeal to insects, not the gardener. The dividing line between fair and foul can be fine, and even wonders like the smell of hyacinths, jasmine, or sweet pea can have an odd edge of the dungheap if the nose gets too close.

It's odd how many smells obviously attract insect pollinators as well as primate gardeners. But of course, insects are not only nice bees, hoverflies and butterflies; there are houseflies, bluebottles, and other nasties, which adore ordure or rotting flesh, even both. Plant catalogues rarely tell you if flowers attract them, for some can be amongst the most beautiful of flowers. Others flowers, more upfront, make it perfectly clear, and can look, while fresh, like something that died a while ago.

Ignoring nasty leaf smells, which often protect the plant from grazing (like the rank smell of Iris foetidissima leaves, the powerful fox scent from crown imperials, the stink of ferrets from Codonopsis, or goat in Eccremocarpus), there are nasty flower smells amongst the nicest trees and shrubs like.... Well, Enkianthus makes at least me go green, and the rowans, however lovely the berries, can make strong gardeners puke. Others hate the flowering currants, though others yet like the smell (perhaps it depends if they keep cats). Even the viburnums, home of many fine smells, has amongst some species, like Viburnum opulus, quite ghastly pongs.

In woodland or herbaceous border, lilies are the main surprise. Some are so perfumed that they quite take your breath away; others have enough clinging stink to make you retch, or reach for the gas-mask. Still, if you're not going to cut them for the house, the stinkers can look marvellous in the garden. The ordinary martagons (Lilium martagon), are easy, lovely, and smell foul. Petals vary from dingy plum to a beautiful white; plant as many as you can in drifts far away from the patio, or main flower garden (they're easy from seed). Far away, too, put the 17th century L. canadensis with spires of spiky lemon yellow bells in the form called 'Flavum', or the more usual crimson form, or the more recurved (and even smellier) L. pyrenaicum.

But blue, green and black blowflies have eyes as well as stink-dectecting antennae, so amongst flowers with really horrible pongs, there are some that look evil too. Unless you can visit the jungle, perhaps the worst are amongst the genus Stapelia and its relatives. Succulents from dry Africa, the plants have five petalled flowers that can be large and, if you're a blowfly, dazzlingly attractive. Long ago, I once had a species that was producing a dozen juicy grey-green flower buds just as we were off for 'hols'. Back a fortnight later, we opened the door, and could barely enter. The smell of corpses had almost had neighbours ringing the police. Handkerchiefs over mouths, we gasped through to the conservatory where the stapelia was covered with flowers almost a foot across, streaked in burgundy and brown, and covered with weird flattened hairs that waved hideously in the draught. The whole house was abuzz with bluebottles, and it took a while for the smell to evaporate. A 'good' species to try is the handsome Stapelia hirsuta, though make sure that you can open the windows in a hurry. Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, will sell you a packet.
All are easy to cultivate on sunny window ledges and in conservatories, although they flower best if they are given a substantial root run in a large pot.

Here, and much more recently, another plant rushed into the open air once it flowered was a 'voodoo lily' (several types of Sauromatum). You can buy these as large brown corms, about the size of a cyclamen root. The advertising copy tells you to leave it on a window ledge, where it will indeed flower without soil or water. The plant produces an arum lily in green and brown; rather nice really. The adverts don't tell you about the smell. It unfurls its spathe to reveal a warm club-shaped purple spadix at the top of a cluster of small flowers. That's questionable enough, but at the same time it unleashes a miasma that will leave you gasping. Other aroids are similar, like the common cuckoo-pint, or the yellow spathed Arum italicum (the leaves wonderfully marked in the form called 'Pictum').

Back in the open garden, freshly opened early purple orchids smell of vanilla, but this rapidly deteriorates to an aroma of tomcats. Even the old pot herb 'Alexanders' (Smyrnium olusatrum), will have noses squirming. Also available from Chiltern Seeds, this celery-like biennial has umbrella clusters of tiny green flowers, irresistible to blowflies. Better, if you want an alexanders for cutting, is the related Smyrnium perfoliatum, where the flowers are supported by saucers of yellow green bracts. Wonderful, and also at Chiltern.


Copyright david stuart 2004