Giant Flower Makes Big Stink—For a Limited Time

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2002

The Amorphophallus titanum, the world's biggest and worst- smelling flower, is currently exhibiting its stinky splendor at the Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, California.

The plant, also called titan arum, but popularly known as the corpse flower, blooms only a few times in its 40-year life span, and the bloom lasts for two and a half days at the most. During the first eight hours, the bloom emits a scent that has been variously described as similar to that of rotting eggs, a dead elephant, an outhouse in sweltering heat—and worse. But what is putrid to humans is a siren call to the carrion beetles that pollinate the flowers. They can smell the stench for miles.

Seeing the titan arum in bloom is not as rare as it once was, but it remains a huge crowd pleaser. The first bloom occurred in the United States in 1937 at the New York Botanical Garden, and drew such large crowds that it was named the official flower of the Bronx—a status it recently lost to the daylily.

Since then there have been fewer than 20 recorded blooms in the United States. Thousands of people have passed through the Quail Botanical Gardens in the last several days to view the towering flower.

Devil's Tongue

If you've never seen the plant, its name, Amorphophallus titanium, provides a clue as to why matrons of the Victorian age prevented young ladies from seeing it. Amorpho is the Greek root word for "shapeless," and phallus is the Greek word for "penis"; titanium, of course, means "huge." The plant is also called Devil's Tongue and Snake Palm.

First discovered in Sumatra's rain forests in 1878 by Odoardo Beccari, an Italian botanist, the corpse flower is a monsoon plant. During the dry season the tuber—the fleshy stem of the plant, which can weigh 100 pounds or more—remains dormant underground. When the rains come, it shoots up a single leaf that separates at the top.

"It kind of looks like a palm tree," said Paul Beeman, a plant technician at the University of Washington's greenhouse, where two plants bloomed recently without media fanfare, one in May and one in July. "And it can be quite large; up to 12 feet [3.6 meters] tall with a 15-foot [4.6 meter] spread." At the end of the growing season, the leaf dies and the tuber returns to dormancy.

If the tuber is big enough, instead of a leaf, a stalk-like structure called an inflorescence emerges. The inflorescence is the flowering part of the plant, and consists of a central shaft called a spadix. From its base comes a modified leaf called a spathe.

The spadix can grow several inches a day. A mature bloom could grow to be 12 feet (3.7 meters) tall, although so far blooms cultivated in the United States have been between 18 inches (46 centimeters)—"that one was remarkably tiny," said Beeman—to 8.5 feet (3 meters) tall. About six weeks after emerging, the inflorescence, which contains hundreds of tiny flowers, blooms—usually around midnight.

Around 48 hours later, the stink phase is over and the bloom begins to collapse. The plant won't bloom again for at least a couple of years.

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