The corpse flower (Amorphophallus Titanium) is a divinely unique species that has captivated the attention of botanists and plant enthusiasts alike for over 100 years. Even the latin name itself adds to the intrigue, combining the latin root words amorphos (without form), phallos (penis), and titanum (giant), because no one can deny the obvious phallic features. There is an alternative to the penis-referencing latin name that came about many years back. Fearing the response from the audience of a popular British TV show, the host David Attenborough dubbed it Titan arum, and the name stuck. During the rare bloom, the plant expels a scent frequently described as rotting meat or a decaying corpse. Hence the Indonesian name, bunga (flower) bangkai (corpse). Of course most people just refer to it as the corpse flower with this memorable smell in mind.
Whatever you call it, this specimen is one of the largest blooming flowers in the world and opens rarely, apparently with the singular goal of continuing the species. To compare it in human terms, one could say that the corpse flower is the extremist of agoraphobics, only coming out when vitally necessary.
The first recorded discovery of the corpse flower was in the late 1800’s by Italian botanist, Odoardo Beccari, who found the plant while studying in Sumatra, Indonesia. To this day, Indonesia is the only known area that the corpse flower grows in the wild. It's also grown in many botanical gardens, including those in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles because it's such a unique and captivating plant. Successful growth in captivity is by no means guaranteed though, as demonstrated by a recent aborted bloom at the Huntington Library, which seemed to be right on the cusp of blooming but then couldn't muster enough energy to actually unfold. While their recorded dissection is informative, witnessing a corpse flower bloom remains a rare treat! So rare, that when two plants survived in the Bronx area of New York, the corpse became the official flower of the Bronx from that time in the mid-30’s until it was replaced by the daylily in 2000.
Technically the corpse flower is not a flower at all. In fact it is an inflorescence. That means that it's actually a stalk that has many flowers. The core structure, called the spatix, holds a mass of tiny male and female flowers that grow up the sides. The large green leafy structure, called a spathe, surrounds the flowers, protecting them. Once pollinated, the top of the spatix becomes covered in colorful orangish-red seeds. There are many odd features and the corpse flower is not your typical houseplant by any definition. For starters, it can reach a height of eight feet and approach 13 feet wide when the leaves are mature. Plus the corm, or stem base that grows underground, can weigh between 100-220 pounds!
During the many non-blooming years, a single long leaf juts out of the corm. After repeated years of unproductive single leaf production, the corpse plant finally works up the strength to produce a bloom. This process can take up to seven years. Following the initial bloom, it may be another decade before it is seen again. Then again, there are cases of a plant blooming twice in the same year. The average seems to be between 6-10 years. When it does occur, thousands flock to witness the event at botanical gardens or online as the drama unfolds.
The Bloom of a Lifetime
When the plant blooms, it begins with rapid growth. Then the spathe opens and the odor begins to escape. Scientists believe the plants emits this smell to attract the carrion beetles, dung beetles, flesh flies, and other insects that commonly feed on decaying fish and meat. The plant typically produces the strongest odors between the hours of midnight and four in the morning when they have the best chance of attracting feeding insects. In addition, the plant raises its own temperature to around 98 degrees to further deceive interested bugs. The dark burgundy color of the interior also emulates raw fleshy meat.
Once the deceptive smell pulls in the insects, they are dusted with pollen. The male and female flowers, waiting in rings near the bottom of the spatix are the recipients of pollination while the beetles and flies bounce around in search of an escape route. After 12 to 24 hours, the corpse flower releases the insects, having served their pollination purpose. The total activity window is only about 36 hours until the flower collapses and once again closes until the next bloom, likely years down the road. The plant does not die back, however. If pollination occurred, the plant produces hundreds of fruit pods, which attract hungry birds that disperse the seeds around the forest floor while feeding.
Although the plant has a long list of oddities, it’s not too out of left field as it's related to other well known plants such as skunk cabbage, calla lily, and common duckweed.
The corpse flower is currently endangered throughout its habitat in Indonesia. With a combination of natural disasters and deforestation by humans, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens report that up to 72 percent of the habitat has been destroyed.