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Voodoo Lily Stench Makes Humans Flinch, Flies Fawn

Peeeee-yew! The Minnesota Zoo is getting a noseful with its first voodoo lily. (Image credit: Minnesota Zoo.)

A voodoo lily at the Minnesota Zoo has finally begun to flower, and the rare, oversized bloom, with its signature scent of death and decay, is bringing in a cloud of intrigued admirers.

"Everybody who has been in there can smell it ," said Kim Thomas, the horticulture supervisor at the zoo, located in Apple Valley.

Thomas planted the ready-to-bloom voodoo lily along a pathway in the zoo's tropical exhibit, housed in a 1.5 acre greenhouse, just a few days ago, and said she was looking forward to the flower's promised malodorous show .

She didn't have to wait long. Within the space of about 48 hours, the 4-foot (1.2-meter)-tall bloom began to open. But does it smell?

"Ohhhh, yea," Thomas told OurAmazingPlanet.

Should anyone ever market a perfume to zombies, the voodoo lily could be the main ingredient.

Thomas described the smell this way: "Dead mice. For a couple of days. In a plastic bag that you then open up and take a whiff."

The voodoo lily (Amorphophallus konjac), native to the steamier regions of eastern Asia, from Japan to China to Indonesia, has thrown vanity out the window in the name of procreation.

When the plant blooms, which happens over the course of several days, it emits the potent stench of a rotting carcass.

Flies and other insects with an appetite for destruction are drawn to the horrific smell, thinking a feast of decay awaits. In their search for a meal, the flies pick up pollen and inadvertently provide pollination services to the flowers.

The voodoo lily belongs to the same family as the aptly named corpse flower , which employs the same smelly pollination ploy. (Here's how one visitor familiar with the corpse flower compared the two, Thomas recalled: "He decided that ours was actually stinkier," Thomas said. "We kind of like that.")

Don't be fooled. There are many flowers in this enormous bloom. The voodoo lily's outer 'petal' is called a spathe, and is actually more similar to a leaf. The lily's flowers, both male and female, are tiny, and cover the large protuberance emerging from the lily's center, called a spadix. (Image credit: Minnesota Zoo.)

Even in a greenhouse in Minnesota, faraway from its tropical home, the lily's strategy appears to be working.

"There aren't usually flies in there, but the ones in there found the flower," Thomas said.

Humans also seem to find the lily irresistible.

"It's very beautiful in its own very odd, exotic way," Thomas said. "I can't think of anything that I personally have ever grown before that is as intriguing as this plant."

Thomas said she expects the bloom and smell to peak sometime over the next few days, and suspects the show will be over by early next week.

Thomas said it's nice that botany is getting a rare moment in the spotlight.

"Being a zoo, most people come to look at the animals," Thomas said, so it's a pleasant surprise to see visitors stop and look and read all about the curious plant.

"For me, it doesn't get any better than that," Thomas said.

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.