Todd Carlson, wearing a mask, looks at the blooming voodoo lily.

In a faculty office, a foul-smelling plant hits its peak: 'The kind of flower only a biochemist could love'

The time of year has arrived when a tropical plant carefully tended by faculty member Todd Carlson has finally come into bloom in his office for a fleeting time period.

The only problem? The full bloom is enough to drive a person away.

It turns out that Carlson's botanical fascination is a voodoo lily, which has a particularly foul distinguishing feature: It smells like rotting flesh.

No matter to Carlson, professor of chemistry: "It's the kind of flower only a biochemist could love."

A closeup of the purplish voodoo lily blooming in Todd Carlson's office.
The voodoo lily blooming in Todd Carlson's office.

And the bonus: The plants' unique characteristics also lend themselves to good discussion in the biochemistry classroom, going beyond the human biochemistry that tends to dominate most textbooks, he said.

If this odorous phenomenon sounds familiar, you no doubt have heard news reports where a public space like a botanical garden will announce that its large corpse flower is blooming and there is a limited time to witness its characteristic stench.

The corpse flower and voodoo lily are related — Grand Valley has both in its greenhouse — and they have the same goal: Emit a scent that smells like rotting flesh to attract the flies that pollinate the plants.

Chemically, the substances responsible for the odor are cadaverine and putrescine, which are organic compounds classified as diamines, Carlson said. Another factor that he said contributes to his science-based fascination is that it has a remarkably inefficient alternate respiration system that tends to generate a lot of heat and even more odor. 

While a big corpse flower usually goes years in between blooming because of its size, Carlson's voodoo lilies tend to bloom every year because they are smaller. But they still can cause a sensation, albeit a more localized one in the Padnos Hall of Science.

One afternoon this week, as Carlson was walking through a hall while carrying the blooming voodoo lily, student Jacob Boersma took notice of the plant and mentioned its smelly reputation. Boersma wanted to take a whiff.

"It just smelled bad. I'd align it with roadkill," Boersma said.

Jacob Boersma smells the voodoo lily.
Jacob Boersma smells the voodoo lily.
Todd Carlson, wearing a mask, places the voodoo lily under a hood in the biochemistry lab.
When the odor is too much, Todd Carlson sometimes has to relocate the voodoo lily to the biochemistry lab.
A hand is shown holding four offshoots of the plant.
Some of the offshoots that Carlson keeps in his office to share with others.

Indeed, for all of his fascination with the plant, the odor can bring on a headache for Carlson and he will then relocate it under the hood in the biochemistry lab. But that won't stop Carlson from growing the plant in the garden during the summer, digging up the bulb in the fall and waiting again in the winter for it to bloom.

He first learned of the plant while in graduate school, and he said he received his first bulb from Tim Strickler, professor emeritus of biomedical sciences. Carlson pays that forward by giving away small offshoots of his plants that he keeps on a shelf in his office. He said he has plenty of takers.

"I think the plant is beautiful," Carlson said. "I suppose it's a scientific fascination, but life is pretty amazing, and one of the things you learn as a biochemist is how remarkable the chemistry of all living things is."


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