Researchers Uncover Secrets of Gigantic "Corpse Flower"

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2003

A flower taller than a man, stinking strongly of putrefying roadkill and colored deep burgundy to mimic rotting flesh, sounds like something from a low-budget science fiction movie. But Indonesia's titan arum—or "corpse flower," as known by locals—is a real, if rare, phenomenon, pollinated in the wild by carrion-seeking insects.

But corpse flowers are not only found in the wild and many have bloomed in recent years in botanical gardens worldwide from England to Arizona.

The latest to stir up a buzz is the first public blooming of a titan arum in Washington, D.C. The flower, in the United States Botanic Garden, on the National Mall next to the U.S. Capitol, is expected to open—and release its fetid odor—any time from today. Public interest is so high that the Botanic Garden has a hotline with recorded updates about the flower's progress.

The plethora of new blooms in collections worldwide are giving botanists the chance to break long-held records for size and longevity, and probe the biology of the plant as never before.

A mature, bucket-shaped corpse flower emerges from a huge underground storage tuber once every one to three years. Producing that enormous, frilly inflorescence takes a lot of effort. In young specimens, and in non-flowering years, the plant unfurls a single leaf which can reach the size and appearance of a small tree with many "leaflets." However, in preparation for just a few days of flowering, the plant must shed its leaf and sit dormant for up to four months to muster its energy reserves.

The "flower" is in fact a structure known as an inflorescence. In members of the Aroid family, the inflorescence is composed of a petal-like outer spathe, and the spadix, a central column dotted with hundreds of inconspicuous flowers.

Record-Breakers

A mature eight-year-old captive titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, typically reaches six feet (1.82 meters) tall. However, in May, one inflorescence in Bonn, Germany, produced a breathtaking (perhaps literally) bloom nearly nine feet (2.74 meters) tall, setting a new record for size. The previous record was set in 1932, when an inflorescence in Wageningen, Holland, reached 2.67 meters in height.

Reports of inflorescences larger than this have appeared over the years, but there is no evidence to support these claims, said Wilhelm Barthlott, director of the University of Bonn Botanical Garden. The Bonn plant's enormous tuber now weighs 176 pounds (80 kilograms). "Constantly in the literature there is a false transcription of feet into meters," said Barthlott, but many measurements also include the height of the tuber, instead of the height from the soil surface, he said. Measured this way, the Bonn flower would be over 11 feet in height (3.40 meters).

No one knows for sure how big wild titan arums can grow, added Barthlott.

Another titan, named Ted, that bloomed last month in the University of California-Davis Botanical Conservatory, barely scraped 3 foot 8 inches in height (1.1 meters), but it was exceptional in other ways. "We may not have had the largest flower, but we [were] the longest lasting," said the conservatory's curator, Ernesto Sandoval. The UC-Davis bloom lasted over four days, while most others wither away in half that time.

"Fortuitous Free-for-All"

Continued on Next Page >>


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