This past weekend, crowds lined up at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, wanting to catch a glimpse of a flower known both for its humongous size (6 to 10 feet tall!) and its stench. The plant producing this startling, malodorous bloom is known by botanists as Amorphophallus titanum and by laypeople as the titan arum – or, more descriptively, as the corpse flower, because its scent resembles rotting flesh.
Corpse flower was discovered in Sumatra in 1878 at the height of the Victorian plant hunting craze, by an Italian botanist named Odoardo Beccari. His sensational descriptions of the huge flower were met with disbelief by many scientists until 1889, when the seeds he’d collected in the wild produced a plant that bloomed, at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. Since then, a corpse flower in bloom anywhere in the world has usually made headlines, as cultivated plants can bloom as infrequently as once a decade.
Let me backtrack and explain that I live in Atlanta, so I have no local connection to this auspicious horticultural event at the Huntington – though it does show you how fast, far, and wide the word spreads among plant lovers when an Amorphophallus specimen shows signs of imminent bloom. (I first heard of this plant back in 1998, when the Atlanta Botanical Garden put a blooming corpse flower on display for excited crowds.)
Online Instant Replay
And the display is a short one, lasting only a day or two. As the flower unfurled last weekend, I was able to follow its progress, thanks to the Huntington staff members that helpfully posted pictures and updates on its Stinky Blog. If you also missed the chance to see one of the world’s largest flowers in person, you can go back and review the entire process in this 1999 YouTube video.
Here’s what the blog reported last Friday, June 4, as the flower began to open:
Botanical staff noticed that the petal-like outer spathe was beginning to pull away from the tall spadix at around 2 p.m. Friday afternoon. But flies had already begun to appear, clearly sensing something in the air. The bloom takes approximately 7 hours to open fully. The odor is at its strongest during the first 12 hours or so, when the plant is receptive to pollination.
Did you get that last sentence? The one linking the plant’s malodorous tendencies to pollination? Because that’s the really fascinating part…
It turns out that as Amorphophallus was evolving in the rain forests of equatorial Sumatra, it came to rely on a certain family of insects to pollinate it, so it could set seed and ensure survival of its own species – and those insects are carrion beetles, which feed on the decaying flesh of dead animals. So what we have here is a brilliant example of biological adaptation, by which corpse flower came to emit the fetid smell most likely to attract the beetles that would do the work of carrying pollen to other plants.
But you know what really stinks, at least if you’re a beetle? The whole thing is a hoax, because corpse flower has nothing to offer its pollinators in return for their services – unlike sweeter smelling plants that provide pollinators with a meal of nectar in exchange for help with producing offspring.
– Hilda Brucker
- Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Hilda Brucker, a writing colleague and gardening expert based in Atlanta. Hilda was so intrigued by the Huntington Library’s blooming “corpse flower” that she offered Dateline>City of Angels the above guest post. You can visit Hilda’s regular gardening blog at GadAbout Media.