As It Happens·From our archives

A rare 'penis plant' that smells like rotting flesh has bloomed in the Netherlands

People are lining up in the Netherlands to spend time with a giant plant that looks like a penis and smells like a corpse.

The Amorphophallus decus-silvae only blooms once every 20 years or so

An Amorphophallus decus-silvae in bloom in the Netherlands looks like a penis and smells like rotting flesh. (Hortus Botanicus Leiden)

This story was originally published on Oct. 27, 2021.

Story Transcript

When asked how big his penis plant is, Rogier van Vugt didn't hesitate to answer. 

"It is a decent two metres, so it's slightly above average," van Vugt, who runs the University of Leiden's botanical gardens, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

He's talking, of course, about the garden's prized Amorphophallus decus-silvae which, now that it's in bloom, looks like an erect phallus and smells like rotting flesh. 

Its Latin name literally translates to "shapeless penis," but it's better known simply as a penis plant. Native to the jungles of Indonesia, it's very rare and only blooms once every two decades or so.

That's why, despite its pungent smell, it's been drawing a steady stream of plant-lovers to the garden since it started blooming last week.

"It also makes for a lot of suggestive photos," van Vugt said.

The flowering penis plant is a 'decent' size of two metres tall, says the botanical garden's director. (Lex Van Lieshout/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

This is only the third time a Amorphophallus decus-silvae has bloomed in Europe, van Vugt said. The last time one bloomed at the Leiden garden was 24 years ago, he added, and that was a different plant.

This one was brought to the garden six years ago by volunteer Rudmer Postma, who also tended to the fickle plant until it started to bud. 

The penis plant's equally stinky cousin, Amorphophallus titanum — known as the "corpse flower" — is a bit more common, and Van Vught says visitors can usually find one blooming every year at a botanical garden somewhere in the world.

Rogier Van Vught is the head of the botanical gardens at the University of Leiden. (Hortus Botanicus Leiden)

The plant is currently in its flowering female stage, during which it emits a corpse-like odour that lures flies, Van Vught said.

Once it hits its male blooming stage, it will emit pollen to cover the flies. 

"Then the flower actually stops stinking, so that the flies are thinking, 'OK, what are we doing here?' And they fly away, covered with pollen," Van Vught said.

"And hopefully somewhere in the forest, another female-stage flower will be blooming and the flies will dive into that flower and pollinate that one."

A woman climbs a ladder to snap a picture of the smelly plant. (Lex Van Lieshout/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

Folks lining up to catch a glimpse and whiff of the plant can also check out some of the garden's other suggestively named flora. 

"Botanists, I don't know, I think they were kinky in the old days. We have a nipple cactus and, indeed, we do have a clitoria," Van Vught said.

"It was really a coincidence that the clitoria was flowering at the same time the amorphophallus was blooming."

A clitoria plant at the University of Leiden's botanical gardens in the Netherlands. (Hortus Botanicus Leiden)

The Clitoria ternatea is a tropical flower named for its resemblance to a human vulva — clitoris and all. 

"People found out about that, and they asked me where the clitoria was," Van Vught said.

"In some cases, they came back and, with a straight face, surrounded by dozens of other people, they told me they cannot find the clitoria. And they were absolutely oblivious of the joke they were in, which I found really funny."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.

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