Researchers Uncover Secrets of Gigantic "Corpse Flower"

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UC-Davis botanists, chemists, and entomologists used the bloom time to take tissue samples, bottle up some of Ted's perfume for analysis and make other recordings that should give insights into how the plant functions and why it's so unusual.

"'Fortuitous free-for-all' covers this project very nicely," said UC-Davis plant physiologist Terry Murphy, self-proclaimed "cheerleader and coordinator" of the project. "I learned about the impending bloom two weeks before it opened," said Murphy. "Because I thought this was an opportunity for some interesting science, I called around campus to see who might be interested."

Though the corpse flower's odor chemicals have been tested before, some speculation still exists as to which exact compounds are present. Sulfurous chemicals, also responsible for the smell of rotten eggs, are almost certainly present. In addition, the aptly named compounds cadaverene and putrescine—produced when flesh breaks down—are found in other flowers of the Aroid family and are likely to be synthesized by A. titanum too.

These compounds give the plant its horrendous allure, which smells "like something curled up in there and died, a week ago," said Ken Shackel, UC-Davis pomologist (fruit scientist). The scent comes out in waves, said Sandoval, reminiscent of rotting fish one minute and rotting pumpkin the next.

Shackel was enlisted to attach heat probes to the unfurling inflorescence. Though most plants are more or less at the mercy of the environment, a few such as the titan arum are able to generate heat. Theory suggests that "higher temperatures would cause their perfume to reach out to insects more effectively," said Shackel.

Ted's central spadix heated up starting around 11 p.m. on the first night, from room temperature (68 degrees F/20 degrees C) to around 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and stayed at that temperature until 3 or 4 a.m., when it dropped back to room temperature again.

Corpse flowers attract nocturnal insects such as beetles and flies that usually lay eggs in rotting flesh. "I can only assume this is the plant version of a one-night stand," said Shackel.

Other researchers took imprints of the plant's surface to look for tiny openings that would allow the fragrance to escape, and tissue samples to study biochemistry.

Global Phenomena

Many recent U.S. blooms can be traced to the late medical doctor and arum expert James R. Symon, said Sandoval. Symon and colleagues collected fruits in the wild and distributed them to botanical gardens in 1993.

Other blooms worldwide can be sourced to Bonn, said Barthlott. The garden distributed many during the mid-1990s, after a successful fertilization using frozen pollen produced 450 ripe fruits. Bonn has cultivated blooms since the 1930s, many of which were lost in Second World War air raids.

Italian botanists first recorded A. titanum in 1878. The first captive bloom was cultivated in England's Royal Botanical Garden, Kew, near London in 1889, generating so much intrigue that police were called in for crowd control. Victorian-era scientists picked the Greek words: Amorpho meaning shapeless, phallus meaning penis, and titanum meaning huge, to christen the new species.

Since that time, Sumatra's wet forests have been degraded by development and pollution, but no one knows how many corpse flowers are left, said Sandoval. Indonesian experts do believe them to be endangered.

One thing is for sure though: such sustained interest in this unusual plant will ensure it continues to thrive in captivity. "About 2,000 people came to see the Davis plant over the course of that week," said Sandoval. "In a normal week we'd have 50 visitors." Bonn's flower attracted over 16,000 visitors in just three days.

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