Is it Stinky? The Sensory Tour at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens.

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Sex and death are not normally things that come to mind when you think of the calm, peaceful Royal Botanic Garden that lines the edge of Sydney’s pretty harbour.

But there again, you don’t normally get to eat the plants either when you visit so, you can safely say the experience on the Botanic Garden’s new Behind the Scenes: Sensory Tour is not that normal – which, I guess, is why they asked me if I’d like to go along and try it.

Image: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney used with permission

Disclosure: I was hosted on this tour by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

What’s the Sensory Tour All About

The point of the Behind The Scenes: Sensory Tour is to introduce you to the many plants in Sydney’s botanical gardens that have something unusual about the way they feel, smell, taste or look.

You start off wandering around outside where you get up and close and personal with the world’s deadliest plant, stroke some super soft leaves and learn what bananas used to look like before we started breeding them – and why, you’d better start munching on them a bit quick if you don’t want to miss out

small red bananas on a banana tree
Old fashioned bananas – inside is even weirder

Once we’d explored outside, we went ‘behind the scenes’ to some of the many greenhouses that the general public don’t usually get to see.

The tour lasts 90 minutes and during that time, guide Paul Nicholson told me so many amazing plant stories I couldn’t take notes fast enough. One thing you do realise on this tour is that plants are seriously evil.

‘It’s worse than that, they are smart and evil,’ says Paul. ‘They work out ways to ensure their survival no matter what.’

Even the smallest green thing seems to have murderous intent.

The Tale of The Great Fig Wasp Massacre.

Take the tiny ‘berry’ (botanically known as a Syconium) on one of the garden’s many fig trees; at about the size of a large pea they don’t look like they could be responsible for killing hundreds of innocent creatures, but that is exactly what happens.

See, inside the berry is the flower of the fig plant. To reproduce pollen has to get out from inside berry one and into another one… enter the fig wasp. Literally. Pregnant female fig wasps enticed in by yummy smells enter the berries through a tiny hole in the top to lay their eggs.

When these hatch, the new boy wasps and girl wasps, mate. (I’m trying not to think too hard about the fact that they might be brother and sister). Afterwards, the newly pregnant girl wasps fly, covered in pollen, back out of a hole (that the boy ants handily chew for them) to go give birth another yummy smelling fig berry nearby – pollinating the fig flower as they do it – and the cycle starts again.

The boys, however, don’t have wings so they end up stuck in the berry where they die! As does the original mum wasp. It’s like a Tarantino movie in there.

Seems I too am a murderer

All of this was discussed before I met the actual carnivorous plants – these don’t faff about with decoy lady wasps, they just suck down insects directly.

carnivorous plants Sydney Botanic Garden

Although I did learn that this is not without cost – remember those Venus Fly Traps you used to delight in poking with a pencil at school to make them snap – turns out, that’s a bad thing.

‘Each head on a fly trap can only close about four times, after that it dies and a new one takes its place,’ Paul told me. Oops!

I also learned that you can eat begonias – although not too many as they are packed with oxalic acid which is a recipe for stomach aches in large quantities.

And talking of eating plants I also met my old nemesis the betel nut in its natural form – thankfully I didn’t have to try chewing that again (you can check what happened when I ate betel nut in Taipei here).

betel nut plan with four red berries
This is a betel nut on its tree

The Stinkiest Plants of Them All

I ended up on the tour because of my interest in the stinky plants in the Sydney botanical gardens.

Specifically, the mighty Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium), known as the Corpse Plant because when it flowers, it smells like a rotting corpse!

Plant with brown and yellow flower and large yellow shoot growing from the top
Image: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney used with permission

I’d mentioned this in my Fun Things to do in Circular Quay post and once the Gardens heard about it they asked if I’d like to come and meet it.

Sadly, or perhaps not, it wasn’t flowering when I was there, but I did learn it isn’t the only stinky plant in their collection. There’s at least four that reek the place out when they flower – and I just missed one.

Behold The Tongue Orchid

A few weeks earlier, the Tongue Orchid (or Bulbophyllum fletcherianum) had woken up. When this flowers Paul says it smells like ‘what would happen if you put 4-5 day old teenager socks, a dead rat and old cat food into a Nutribullet.’

Again, this isn’t just its cool party trick, there’s a clever reason why it emits its stench – it’s attempting to entice flies and beetles that normally lay their eggs in carrion to climb all over it.

When they do they pick up pollen on their feet which they then carry to plants in other areas ensuring their survival.

Bright purple flower with spiky leaves
Image: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney used with permission

I was sad to have missed it but actress Nicole Kidman and her family did catch though as they’d been on the tour a few weeks earlier when it was in full bloom.

At this point, I had visions of there being some A-List ‘stinky plant hotline’ that got called when anything exciting happened but apparently not – they just booked on the tour randomly and got lucky.

One person who wasn’t so lucky was the man who brought the plant to the Sydney gardens.

Avid orchid collector Phil Spence picked the sample from the orchid’s normal growing grounds in Papua New Guinea – the problem was, there wasn’t just one plant flowering at the time, but lots and it got a bit overpowering – cue the rapid reappearance of his lunch!

The plants give a clue when they are going to flower, the bulbs (or tubers) they grow from reach a certain weight which gives the horticulturists a heads up that things are going to get stinky.

Apparently, the newest recruits get the job of opening the greenhouse door each morning when it’s imminent as you get knocked off your feet by the whiff


The Importance of Careful Planting

I also loved the story of the Voodoo Lily (Amorphophallus bulbifer) which used to grow in a secluded corner of the garden.

They smell faintly like rotten eggs, or gas when they flower. One morning, the greenhouses in the garden’s started to smell worryingly like there was gas leak.

Everything was locked down, emergency services were called, but nothing was found – and then someone realised that the lilies had flowered. And their little corner of the garden was right next to the air intake for the greenhouses!! They’ve now been moved to a less odour-transferable part of the garden.

I spent the whole tour utterly enthralled. I haven’t even touched the surface here of all the cool stuff I saw and learned as I don’t want to spoil it.

white orcihds flowers with pink midldes

This is not a boring ‘look at the flowers’ tour – although if you do like flowers you will get to see some gorgeous orchids and lots of other pretty petally things like this one.

How to Book the Sensory Tour

If you want to try the tour for yourself it takes place every Tuesday and Friday leaving the visitors Centre at 11 am. It costs $41 and lasts 1.5 hours. To see more details or to book check here.

It’s not the only tour in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. They also offer a free tour each day which shows you some of the garden’s highlights. That one introduced me to the late-night slithering eels that also live in the garden. Trust me, it all goes on in there once the visitors go home.

To find full details of What’s On at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, visit their website .

There are a few different tours, lots of talks and you can even have High Tea surrounded by plants that eat things….watch your sandwiches closely people.

Modern Toilet Restaurant in Ximending Taipei is a poop themed restaurant

Who Writes Differentville?

My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.

My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.

I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.

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Flowers you see on the Sensory Tour Botanic Gardens Sydney

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