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Why Do Flowers Smell Good?

Do you love to stop and smell the roses? Or any other flower for that matter? Many people love the fragrance of flowers, but the sweet smell we love so much is just a bonus. That's right. That fragrance isn't intended for us at all. 

(Photo via Shutterstock)

The smell a flower emits is intended to attract insects and birds that will fertilize the flowers. Plants rely on pollinating animals, including insects, birds and bats, to transfer pollen from flower to flower to fertilize them. 

When a bee or another insect visits a flower, it picks up pollen. As these pollinators continue visiting more flowers to drink nectar or gather pollen, they deposit some of the pollen on the flowers, which then fertilizes them.

Some flowers use wind or even gravity to help with pollination, but many plants rely on pollinators. That's where their smell comes in. Flowers produce fragrances to help attract pollinators. 

No two types of flowers smell the same. That's because scents are created by a variety of chemicals the plants produce. The amounts of these chemicals and how they interact with each other is what creates a fragrance.

Plants tend to emit the most fragrance during the time of day when the insects they use for pollination are active. Flowers that use butterflies and bees for pollination are most fragrant during the day. Plants that are pollinated by moths are most fragrant at night because moths are active at night. Some flowers rely on one specific kind of insect for pollination, so their scent is very specifically aimed at attracting that insect.

Not all flowers smell good. Some smell downright awful. Take the corpse flower. It emits a smell that is similar to rotting flesh. 

The horrible smell of the corpse flower may be a turnoff for humans, but it has a purpose. Corpse flowers are trying to attract carrion beetles and flesh flies, both of which are attracted to the smell of rotting meat because it is where they lay their eggs.

Corpse flowers are a popular attraction at many botanic gardens — including the Chicago Botanic Garden, which has several on display. The flowers can go years without blooming. Once they come out of dormancy and prepare to flower, people will flock to botanic gardens as the plants get ready to bloom, hoping to catch a glimpse — and a whiff.


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