Summer of the Corpse Flower

You may have seen recent news articles about the blooming of so-called “corpse flowers,” especially if you live near New York City, Washington DC, Sarasota FL, or Bloomington IN. These smelly beauties are taking the world by storm! It’s exceedingly unusual to see so many blooming at once, and even if you missed their blooming period, it’s never too late to learn about some of the strangest flowers in the natural world.

What is a corpse flower?

“Corpse flower” is another name for plants of the Amorphophallus titanium species, commonly known as titan arums. While their native range is restricted to the rainforests of western Sumatra, the allure of these stunning stinkers has brought them to botanic gardens all over the world.

Corpse flower plants are best known for their – you guessed it – flowers. Every 2 – 10 years, depending on age, the plant dedicates all of its energy for the season to growing a gigantic flower. The flower can grow over ten feet high and emits chemicals found in smelly feet, fecal matter, dead fish, and limburger cheese. This chemical cocktail produces the hideous smell gives the corpse flower its name and attracts its favorite pollinators: Flies and beetles. A titan arum flower also produces heat, making it even more attractive to pollinators and helping to spread the stench.

Within the large bloom, there are smaller male and female flowers. The female flowers, located near the base, bloom first. After they have closed, the male flowers open up. In order to reproduce, pollen from a male flower needs to be deposited in a female flower. It’s very difficult for a corpse flower to pollinate itself, so it’s important that they bloom at the same time as other corpse flowers.

The flower doesn’t last long. Wilting can begin in as little as 12 hours, though they have been known to last 24-48 hours. If all goes well, the titan arum will produce hundreds of fruit a few months after blooming. Birds happily devour titan arum fruits and their droppings spread the seeds throughout the rainforest, laying the foundation for the next generation.

A titan arum corm

A titan arum corm

What does it do when it isn't in bloom?

Image by Alex Lomas

Image by Alex Lomas

Most of the life of a titan arum is not spent in bloom. The main body of the plant is called a corm, an underground tuber that looks somewhat like a potato. Titan arum corms can weigh up to 90 lbs. and are sometimes eaten by Sumatran locals.  Most years, the corm produces a leafy plant rather than a flower. Though it only grows a single leaf, the leaf grows on top of a tall stalk and forms many leaflets. It looks like a small tree in this stage and can grow up to 20 ft. tall.

While in leaf form, the titan arum gathers energy from sunlight and stores excess nutrients in the corm, slowly increasing the corm’s size. After 12-18 months, the leaf dies and the plant becomes dormant. It stays dormant for 3-6 months and then reawakens to send out another leaf, or sometimes a flower.

Why are so many blooming at once?

Titan arum blooms are very rare. Since its discovery in 1889, there have only been 157 documented blooms around the world! That makes this month with its four simultaneous corpse flower blooms across the United States a real rarity. Forget Planet X, could these flowers be a sign of the impending apocalypse?

Probably not.

I saw this corpse flower at the US Botanical Gardens!

I saw this corpse flower at the US Botanical Gardens!

There are several options for an explanation without having to delve into the prophetic. For one thing, it has been a very hot and humid summer in the United States. This mimics the natural Sumatran environment of the titan arum and could be triggering a mass bloom.

Another explanation concerns the origin of the plants. There aren’t good records on where these titan arum plants came from and it could be that they are all closely related, and thus blooming on a similar schedule.

A final option would be if the titan arums were experiencing something very similar to what our local oak trees went through last fall: A mast year. Since the titan arum rarely self-pollinates, it’s important that it blooms at the same time as other members of its species. There could be some sort of genetic timer within the plants that call upon them to bloom at the same time to maximize their chances at getting pollinated.

It could be any one of these explanations, neither, or some mix of all three! Either way, the corpse flowers are entertaining diversions from a summer full of bad news, so check them out if you have the time!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow