10 Fascinating Facts About Corpse Flowers
Big, smelly, rare, phallic—these adjectives all describe Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the corpse flower. While native to western Indonesia, the plant is currently taking Washington, D.C. by smelly storm: The last of three—count 'em, three—corpse flowers to bloom this summer began its stinky blossoming this week at the United States Botanic Garden. In honor of the occasion, here's some trivia to celebrate one of nature's stinkiest plants.
1. THE CORPSE FLOWER'S LATIN NAME IS NSFW (OR BRITISH TV).
No, it's not just you: Amorphophallus titanum really does look like a large, lumpy penis. In fact, the plant gets its scientific name from three roots: amorphos (without form), phallos (penis), and titanum (giant).
Can't say the plant's Latin name in polite company without blushing? Thanks to David Attenborough, the English naturalist and TV personality, you can also opt to use its common name, Titan arum. While narrating BBC nature documentary series "The Private Life of Plants," Attenborough thought the corpse flower's proper name was too improper to say on TV, so he coined a less-scandalous moniker. Or, you could simply go with its Indonesian name, bunga bangkai.
2. A 19TH-CENTURY ITALIAN BOTANIST 'DISCOVERED' THE CORPSE FLOWER.
Western scientists first learned of Amorphophallus titanum in 1878, when Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari came across the enormous plant growing in the rainforests of Sumatra, a large island in western Indonesia. The specimen he recorded had a circumference of around 5 feet, and its height was around 10 feet.
Beccari tried to ship the flowering shrub's corms, or giant underground tubers, back to Europe, but French customs ended up holding them under an order designed to prevent the spread of the grapevine pest Phylloxera. Still, a few seeds survived against the odds, and a single seedling was sent to the Kew Botanic Gardens in England, where Beccari had once studied. There, it flowered in 1889. In 1926, when the same corpse flower bloomed again, the crowds were so large that police were brought in to control them.
3. THE CORPSE FLOWER GROSSED OUT THE ENGLISH (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE).
Not surprisingly, the corpse flower quickly gained notoriety in Europe: An English artist hired to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young ladies from looking at it, for obvious reasons.
4. A CORPSE FLOWER ISN'T REALLY A SINGLE FLOWER.
Technically, a corpse flower isn't a single flower; it's a flowering plant with clusters of blooms. The plant consists of a thick central spike, known as a spadix, with a base that's encircled by two rings of "male" and "female" flowers. A large, frilly leaf called a spathe envelops these flowers to protect them.
5. CORPSE FLOWERS ARE, AS THEIR LATIN NAME SUGGESTS, ENORMOUS.
Aside from its smell, a corpse flower's most noticeable quality is its sheer size. The plant holds the record for the world's largest unbranched inflorescence (a fancy term for describing a floral structure made of many smaller individual flowers), and it can reach heights of up to 12 feet in the wild. Cultivated corpse flowers are smaller, measuring anywhere from 6 to 8 feet.
6. THEY DON'T HAVE AN ANNUAL BLOOMING CYCLE.
Years, or even decades, can pass before a corpse flower reaches peak bloom. As the big moment finally approaches, the plant's bud grows several inches per day before slowing down its growth. Two protective leaves, called bracts, shrivel and fall off the spathe's base. Then, the spathe unfurls over roughly 24 to 36 hours, giving curious onlookers just a small window to see (and smell) its maroon-colored insides for themselves.
7. THERE'S SCIENCE BEHIND THE CORPSE FLOWER'S TERRIBLE SMELL.
When a corpse flower blooms, the spadix heats up to temperatures of up to 98°F as the plant unleashes a stench akin to rotting flesh. "Those pulses of heat cause the air to rise, like a chimney effect," Ray Mims, a spokesperson for the U.S. Botanic Garden, explained to Washingtonian magazine. "It gets the stench up in the air" to attract pollinating dung beetles and carrion beetles, who are drawn to the scent of rotting flesh.
Experts have identified different molecules responsible for titan arum's stink, including dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), and isovaleric acid (sweaty socks).
8. CORPSE FLOWERS GROW FRUIT WHEN THEY'RE POLLINATED.
Once a corpse flower finishes blooming, it doesn't die. The spathe withers and collapses after a few days, and if pollinated, the plant soon produces hundreds of small, golden-colored fruits. These berry-like seeds are eaten and dispersed by animals such as birds and the rhinoceros hornbill, or harvested in captivity by garden conservation scientists. (No word on how they taste, as they're reportedly not suitable for human consumption.)
Once the seeds ripen from gold to dark orange, and then to dark red—a stage that lasts for five or six months—the corpse flower goes dormant. Then, it sprouts as a tree-like leaf during its next few life cycles as it stores away energy from the sun. Each cycle, the leaf grows bigger and bigger, before dying. Once the plant's corm is fully replenished, it finally blooms again.
9. THE CORPSE FLOWER WAS ONCE THE BRONX'S OFFICIAL FLOWER.
In 1937, the New York Botanical Garden became the proud home of America's first recorded corpse flower bloom. Two years later, yet another flower bloomed in the Bronx garden. Borough president James J. Lyons was so tickled, he designated Amorphophallus titanum as the Bronx's official flower. ''Its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the fastest-growing borough in the City of New York,'' Lyons said, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, news crews covering the event are said to have nearly fainted from the smell.
The Bronx used the corpse flower as a symbol until 2000, when then-borough president Fernando Ferrer, aiming to overhaul the municipality's image, changed its official flower to the day lily. "I hate to think of the corpse flower as the Bronx flower, because people would think the Bronx and think, 'The Bronx stinks,'" Michael Ruggiero, then senior curator for horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, told the Times. "The Bronx is a people place, and the corpse flower is not a people plant. The day lily is, and therefore is a good fit for the Bronx."
10. THE CORPSE FLOWER IS THREATENED BY HABITAT LOSS.
Corpse flowers aren't just rare—they're also vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction, as vast swaths of Sumatra's rainforests are chopped down for timber and to clear ground for oil palm plantations. According to one estimate provided by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Indonesia has now lost around 72 percent of its original rainforest cover. This contributes to the flower's demise, and also threatens important pollinators like the rhinoceros hornbill.