The Corpse Flower

Today’s featured object is chock full of interesting and bizarre tidbits. We’ll start with a sentence you probably never thought you’d read: anthophiles worldwide flock to the smell of corpses.

Fret not, it’s not human bodies attracting plant lovers, just a scent similar to the one that might emanate from dead bodies. 

In this case, the appeal comes from a species of flowering plant called Amorphophallus titanium. This scientific nomenclature brings us to the second intriguing part of this story: the breakdown of this term is a doozy. The second half stems from the Ancient Greek word for “giant,” as in the pre-Olympian gods or the ship Titanic. The first part of the first half comes from the term amorphous, which means “without form” or “misshapen.” Then we have phallus, which indeed signifies what you think it does. Botanists refer to this plant as the titan arum, which refers to its family – Araceae – which is also called the arum family.

This name features more brevity than “giant amorphous penis.” But neither rolls off the tongue quite like the more colloquial moniker: meet the corpse flower.

The corpse flower at the New York Botanical Gardens - photo by Sailing moose

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, so far, we have “smells like dead bodies” and “titanic phallus.” 

The scientific name for A. titanium certainly makes sense when you see the picture above. But what’s the deal with the scent?

To answer that question, let’s back up and take a trip through this crazy plant’s life cycle, which is full of superlatives and weird flower jargon.

The corpse flower usually doesn’t look like its pointy self above; most times it looks like this:

A corpse flower in leaf - photo by Alex Lomas
Graphic by New York Botanical Garden

The blooming of a corpse flower is a public happening, in part because of the odd aromas, but also because they are short-lived and rare. It is native to the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia, where it infrequently flowers. In 1878, the Italian botanist Odorado Beccari encountered it in the wild and kickstarted a love affair among growers worldwide. By 1889, Kew Gardens in London had reared a bloom and, since then, researchers have refined the science for cultivation of the corpse flower.

Typically, in a controlled environment, a flower requires five or 10 years to bloom for the first time. After the first flowering, the plant might follow the same pattern, taking the better part of a decade to open again. Some plants produce a flower more frequently; with ideal conditions, some corpse flowers can bloom every other year. One specimen in Copenhagen reliably pops up every second annum.

The plant earns a titanic reputation, as its anatomy is record-setting. The corpse flower touts the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. An inflorescence is a cluster of flowers arranged on a stem made of one main branch. The corpse flower features a spadix, an inflorescence composed of flowers on a fleshy stem. Surrounding the spadix is a spathe, the leaf-like, flowy structure that displays a deep purple on the inner portion. This crazy protrusion can reach more than 10 feet in height!

It’s also huge beneath the ground. The plant sports a corm, which is a tuber-like stem organ that stores energy. This part of the plant typically weighs about 110 pounds, but the largest ever recorded reached 339 pounds!

Looking up at a record height in 2003 - photo by Issempa
A corpse flower corm weighing 258 pounds - photo by W. Barthlott

When the long-awaited, smelly show is finally ready to occur, people hurry to view the corpse flower because the blooming does not last long, typically about a day. As the spathe opens, a rotten scent begins to emerge.

The reason for this bizarre occurrence is a rather ingenious evolutionary adaptation. The plant wants to attract beetles and flies that carry pollen. These types of insects are carrion eaters, meaning the smell of rotting meat will attract them. The plant produces heat that allows a nasty concoction of chemicals to waft away from it, while the purplish-red color of the inflorescence makes it look like a carcass.

An analysis of the constituents of the corpse flower’s cologne showed that it covers a lot of nasty bases. It emits dimethyl trisulfide like Limburger cheese, triethylamine like rotting fish, isovaleric acid like sweaty socks, phenol like the analgesic Chloraseptic, indole like feces, dimethyl disulfide like garlic, and, to top it all off, benzyl alcohol, which is a sweet floral scent.

Eau de Corpse sounds delightful.

Though the titan arum is listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the number of conservatories across the globe cultivating specimens has increased drastically in the 21st century. During the 1900s, approximately 40 blooms appeared worldwide in greenhouses. Many dozens have bloomed since 2020, with at least four transpiring this month – July 2023.

Still, seeing a specimen in bloom is coveted by plant peepers, akin to birders scoping out rare avians. Like the known migration routes of many birds, the corpse flower gives some signals about its oncoming bloom, which can allow people in the region to visit it. Even so, the flower often peaks at night, making a viewing a rough prospect.

The reward is seeing one of the planet’s strangest plants and the chance to smell a melange of disgusting scents, perhaps the most unlikely tourist attraction Earth has yet developed.

Further Reading and Exploration

THE CORPSE FLOWER – New York Botanical Garden

Corpse Flowers – US Botanic Garden

List of publicised titan arum blooms in cultivation – Wikipedia

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