The Corpse Flower

Not all flowers smell sweet. The Amorphophallus titanum, lovingly referred to as the corpse flower, is one of the most unique plants ever to be discovered. The corpse flower is one of the worlds largest flowers, and only blooms for a period of 24-36 hours. Perhaps more interesting, is that it can take up to seven years to bloom, and some individuals have been observed to bloom only once every few decades.

Every non-flowering year, the corpse flower grows a leaf the size of a small tree, to gather energy that is sent to and stored in the corm, located at the base of the stem. It takes years to store enough energy to bloom, and provides a unique experience to anyone that is lucky enough to experience it.

The Flowering

The corpse flower takes a different approach when it comes to attracting pollinators. Instead of using bees, the corpse flower evolved to attract flies, dung beetles, and other carnivorous insects. Because these insects eat dead flesh, the corpse flower has gone to extreme lengths to imitate both the smell and temperature of rotting meat. The idea is that the insects will fly down into the flower looking for food, and fly out with pollen on their legs when they realize there is none.

I find the ability of the corpse flower to generate its own heat to be fascinating. Temperatures have been recorded to be up to nine degrees Celsius higher on the surface of the plant than the ambient temperature surrounding the plant (Barthlott et al. 2008). It is incredible that this plant can generate enough heat to bring its temperature up to roughly 98 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when you consider that not only is this plant generating heat, but it is also generating odor.

Tim Pollak, the outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden wrote on the Garden’s blog the results of a chemical analyses of the odor consisted of the following:

  • dimethyl trisulfide (also emitted by cooked onions and limburger cheese)
  • dimethyl disulfide (which has an odor like garlic)
  • trimethylamine (found in rotting fish or ammonia)
  • isovaleric acid (which also causes sweaty socks to stink)
  • benzyl alcohol (a sweet floral scent found in jasmine and hyacinth)
  • phenol (sweet and medicinal, as in Chloraseptic throat spray)
  • indole (like mothballs)

The Latin Name is What?!

I would not do myself justice if I did not talk about the Latin name. Amorphophallus titanum is derived from three Latin words, amorphos (without form, misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant). Every now and then you come across a Latin name that just makes you laugh. I am not sure exactly why it was named after a giant misshapen penis, but I can make a guess.

My Crackpot Theory

The plant was discovered in 1878 by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in Sumatra. A quick google image search of “Sumatra rainforest” yielded some amazing photographs of beautiful, lush and dense vegetation (I think that I will add this place to my travel list). I would imagine that in 1878, exploring a distant rainforest would be, for lack of a better word, intimidating. Let’s say that the group of explorers camped out, and did not go home at the end of the day. I think that it is also safe to say that there were no women on this expedition, it was 1878. I think that maybe the Latin name for the corpse flower may have been a manifestation of what Beccari was surrounded by. Maybe they were all getting a little lonely. I will leave you to the rest. To be fair, 13 year old me would have said that it looked like a giant penis as well.

Anyway…

Personally, I have never witnessed the corpse plant in its moment of glory, and to be honest, I still want to. I don’t care if I need to take an air sickness bag with me from the airplane, it would be worth the experience. To be fair, the odor is not meant for me, but for its pollinators, and it is perfectly tuned to be effective at that.

Barthlott, W., J. Szarzynski, P. Vlek, W. Lobin, and N. Korotkova. 2009. A torch in the rain forest: thermogenesis of the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum). Plant Biology 11: 499–505.

Bradford, A., L. S. C. | May 30, and 2017 11:23pm ET. Corpse Flower: Facts About the Smelly Plant. Live Science. Website https://www.livescience.com/51947-corpse-flower-facts-about-the-smelly-plant.html.

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