Botanic Notables: Corpse Flower & Co.

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Botanic Notables: Corpse Flower & Co.

June 22, 2012
02:23pm
Photo by: Cameron McIntire, University of Utah. Amorphophallus perrieri

It has been a month of corpse flowers! Across the country, Amorphophallus titanums (commonly known as titan arum) have been blooming at botanic gardens and zoos, among them Boston's Franklin Park Zoo (where the flower has been named "Morticia"), Saint Louis Botanical Garden (who yesterday reported a stunning second blossom), and Eastern Illinois University's Garden. The legendary plant blooms with the odor of a thousand toxic fumes, the height of two men, and draws crowds as large as any circus. When the species was discovered in 1878, in a Sumatran rainforest, the curious flower shocked Victorian sensibilities and fascinated botanists. Titan arums are considered one of the greatest highlights of natural history exploration and a bloom is still a rare occurance. They are difficult to grow in cultivation, and less than 160 have bloomed worldwide since the species was first discovered. Today, a rare corpse flower blossom continues to be the darling of daily botany news, and meanwhile, new relatives are being discovered. Early this year, a smaller Amorphophallus was discovered in Madagascar, contributing to a lineage of 170 or so species in the genus. 

At under 5 feet tall, the new species is smaller than the corpse flower, but shares a mechanism for attracting carrion beetles and other insects as pollinators: it stinks. "The smell is certainly nauseating," said Greg Whalert, a botanist at University of Utah, of his newly-discovered species. "But it's a beautiful plant [and] really charismatic." Whalert has named it Amorphophallus perrieri.  

Whalert's discovery was fortuitous. He went to Madagascar looking for violets, and stumbled upon the unmistakable plant in its rare bloom. The plants are dormant for most of the year—underground, a large corm (tuber) waits for rain. After collecting the specimen and determining that it had not yet been named, he found a similar species in a Paris herbarium. It had been collected by French botanist-geologist Joseph Marie Henri Perrier de la Bâthie (1873-1958), who didn't realize it was a new species at the time. Whalert decided to name the species for Perrier. 

Some species of Amorphophallus don't smell so bad. A. haematospadix smells like bananas; A. dunnii blooms with an aroma of fresh carrots. A few others smell like chocolate or spices, but the genus is generally characterized by the incredibly terrible odor. When it first bloomed in February, at Whalert's lab at the University of Utah, A. perrieri smelled like cheese. As the spathe (bracts) unfolded, the aroma began to evoke roadkill, then a public restroom, according to lab colleagues. Whalert can understand how the mechanism evolved. "You can imagine in Africa, where big game will die and rot in the sun. That's what [Amorphophallus blossoms] smell like." And he's pleased his is among them: "I'm glad I got a stinky one. It's fascinating to me." 

Boston corpse

Amorphophallus titanum "Morticia" at the Franklin Park Zoo, Boston. Photo credit: Robert Malsberger

Also, be sure to read our interview with Houston Museum of Natural Science's Corpse Flower Lois and our post about the Pig Butt Arum, available from the Plant Delights nursery.

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.