Skip to content

Pollination: A Fascination with Flowers

In the latter half of his life, Darwin researched the complicated cross-pollination mechanisms of such phenomenal plants as the titan arum and its more demure relative, the common English lords and ladies arum.

church_aurum_maculatum Plants known as aroids, such as the lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) shown here, use insect-trapping and careful timing to promote cross-pollination.

Print of Arum maculatum watercolor by Arthur Harry Church, Types of Floral Mechanisms, 1908.

The rare, big, and stinky inflorescence of the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower, has developed a complicated pollination mechanism, timed over several days.

  1. Glands on the spadix (central column) emit a repulsive, rotting-flesh scent that attracts carrion beetles.
  2. The beetles become trapped for one or more days under the frilled skirt (spathe) and transfer any pollen they brought with them to the stigmas of the female flowers beneath.
  3. Pollen released from the male flowers above dusts the beetles.
  4. The spathe relaxes, releasing the beetles to carry pollen to another plant.
Poster of Amorphophallus titanum, The Titan Arum, from the University of Wisconsin, June, 2001. Original drawing by Kandis Elliott.

Watch as David Attenborough explains the pollination of the titan arum

Foul-smelling blossoms from carrion flowers in the genus Stapelia, a native of Zululand, South Africa, emit an odor more resembling rotting flesh than a flower. The scent appeals to beetles and flies that feed on carrion and sometimes mistakenly lay eggs in the flower.


Hand-colored lithograph of Stapelia gigantea, by Matilda Smith and Walter Hood Fitch, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1889.
“Mr. Plant’s Stapelia” shows another prominent color in species of this remarkable South African genus of carrion flowers.


Hand-colored lithograph of Stapelia plantii by Walter Hood Fitch, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1868.

Next – Pollination: Darwin’s Pioneering Work with Orchids
%d bloggers like this: