All about the Corpse Flower!

“Edgar Allan Pew” bloomed at the Conservatory in 2014

There’s always a stir each time an Amorphophallus titanum  gets ready to bloom.

 A. titanum is commonly known as the Corpse Flower, Titan Arum, Devil’s Tongue, or Bunga Banki in its native Indonesian.

This is no ordinary occurrence, however, Titan Arum typically take anywhere from 7 – 10 years  of vegetative growth before blooming for the first time. After its initial blooming, there can be considerable variation in blooming frequency. Some plants may not bloom again for another 7–10 years while others may bloom every two to three years.

The last Corpse Flower fully bloomed at Volunteer Park Conservatory was in 2014. In August 2016, a young (12-year old) corpse flower on loan from the University of Washington Botanical Department named Dougsley began to bloom, but growth and opening halted after the first night. Dougsley never fully opened and began senescence and decomposition before reaching its full potential.

Typically once a blossom appears, the Corpse Flower grows rapidly and can reach a height of over 10-feet within the course of a few weeks.  It grows from a large tuber which can reach 150 pounds or more.  Said to be the largest “flower” (in sheer bulk) in the world, it is technically an “inflorescence”, or a cluster of flowers. The inflorescence has both male and female flowers with female flowers located below the male flowers.

A single huge umbrella-like leaf appears alternately with the flower and is itself quite “titanic”. In cultivation it can reach over 12 feet high, its stalk in the wild can reach 20 feet tall and 15 feet across.

In addition to its colossal size, the Corpse Flower is well-know for another characteristic: it stinks!

Corpse Flower Illustration by Genevieve Dolan

As the spathe gradually opens, the spadix releases the powerful fragrance of rotting flesh to attract pollinators. These include carrion beetles which normally dine on dead animals decaying on the jungle floor. The Corpse Plant tricks these creatures with both the intense odor, and deep-red meat-like color. The corpse plant is not carnivorous  (meaning it’s not interested in eating these insects), rather the insects collect pollen as from the male flowers as they search for a meal, and carry this to the female flowers of other Arum Titanum.

The aroma gradually increases from late evening until the middle of the night and then tapers off as morning arrives. According to Wikipedia, Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol(sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like mothballs).

Corpse Flower Facts: 

  • Discovered in 1881 by Italian botanist and explorer Odoardo Beccari (1843-1920) in Sumatra, at the height of plant hunting during the Victorian era.
  • Seeds sent by Beccari to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1881 flowered in 1889.
  • Amorphophallus means shapeless phallus. In the Victorian Era, ladies were not permitted to view it because of its phallic appearance.
  • First A. titanum to bloom in U.S. was at NY Botanical Garden in 1937.
  • Initially imagined that elephants pollinated but in truth, it is pollinated by dung and carrion beetles that get trapped.
  • Historically feared to consume the gardener growing the plant.
  • Indonesian name is bunga bangkai, which roughly translates to “corpse flower”.
  • The titan arum has the largest unbranched inflorescence (flower cluster) of any plant, up to 7 ½ feet tall.
  • Another Sumatran plant, Rafflesia arnoldii, produces the largest individual flower in the world – up to three feet wide.
  • Average flowering height for the titan arum is 6 feet.
  • The top of the spadix can be 10º warmer than the surrounding air temperature.
  • The actual tiny flowers are hidden by the surrounding spathe.
  • 450-5000 male florets packed tight make a 2.5-3 inch ring.
  • 700 female florets are each ¾ inch long.
  • Female florets are what smell when mature.
  • Odor can be so strong that the human nose can detect it over half a mile away.
  •  The smell can also make your eyes water, and your clothing may smell after you get home.
  • Does not self pollinate. Insects must carry pollen to another flowering plant.
  • Spathe collapses when flowering is completed to keep the fruits dry in the rainforest environment.
  • The tuber loses weight during flowering (one was recorded to have lost 7 lbs)
  • It is the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world.
  • Plants tend to occur in clusters in Sumatra but no population study has been done.
  • Hornbills have been seen feeding on berries and are a possible seed disperser.
  • Security guard in Fairchild Botanical Gardens had to wear a gas mask the night of flower opening.
  • In a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, Homer and the gang make a journey to the Springfield Arboretum to view a large smelly plant on display.

 

Some recorded flowerings:

  • 1889 Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (UK)
  • 1926 Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (UK)
  • 1937 New York Botanical Garden (New York, NY)
  • 1996 Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (UK)
  • 1998 Fairchild Botanical Gardens (Miami, FL)
  • 1999 Huntington Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA); University of Washington
  • 2002 Virginia Tech University, UC Santa Barbara
  • 2003 US Botanical Gardens (Washington D.C.); Bonn Botanic Garden (Germany); University of California at Davis
  • 2004 University of Connecticut
  • 2005 Fairchild Botanical Gardens (Miami, FL)
  • 2005, 2006, 2008, 2014, 2016 Volunteer Park Conservatory

Flowering titans are increasing at botanical gardens worldwide as we learn more about how to grow them successfully.

Corpse Flower Cycle

Amorphophallus titanum growth cycle

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