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What is a 'Corpse Flower'?

By Edited Nov 30, 2016 1 7

Over the past few years I'd heard a lot about "corpse flowers". Intrigued by the name, I did some research. After my virtual exploration trip, I'd learned these plants are a rare bloom and give off a terrible scent when flowering does occur. I also learned that corpse flowers are a type of plant that tends to draw a lot of curiosity. Its scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, and is also known as "Titan Arum".

What is a Corpse Flower?

A corpse flower is a member of the lily family. It is one of the largest flowers in the world, although technically it is not a single flower, it is an inflorescence, or group of flowers, as the Library of Congress notes. 1Amorphophallus titanum can grow to 6 to 12 feet tall and weigh well over 150 pounds. A native plant of Indonesia, Titan Arum was first discovered by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878.  

 Amorphophallus titanum ("Corpse Flower")
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Today, the plant is cultivated in various conservatories around the world. While the plant does bloom, it occurs rarely, and not with any sort of regularity. There is no way to predict in advance when it will happen. When it does happen, it's very evident to those in the vicinity of the bloom, which is purple in color. Aside from its massive size, the corpse flower is given that nickname for a reason. It stinks.

Not only does it give off a putrid scent, it is likened to literally smell like decaying flesh.

Why does Titan Arum have such a putrid smell?

While most flowers give off a very pleasant scent, the corpse flower is one of a few varieties that gives off a horrible odor. The reason why nature has designed the plant to smell this way is to attract flies and carrion beetles. These insects normally lay their eggs in places that contain feces and other rotting materials, as Live Science notes. 2

The bugs are attracted to the sulfur-rich scent and are "tricked" to visit the plant. Unlike other sweeter-smelling flowers where insects get nectar, the bugs get no benefit from Amorphophallus titanum, say experts. Subsequently, this stopover by insects allows pollination to occur. Any advantages to this interaction are all drawn by the massive plant who can reproduce thanks to the bugs' visits. Corpse flowers can warm up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.7 Celsius). This helps trick the bugs to believe there is food.

Close up of "Corpse Flower"
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

How long does the large purple flower last?

Amorphophallus titanum's bloom does not last very long, at most the flower will be open for 24-48 hours. After this window of time, it quickly collapses again. And when its next bloom will come is a mystery. One thing is certain, it's likely to take years, although sometimes it is a shorter window of time.

More Fun Corpse Flower Facts

Want to know more about this unique plant? Here are a few other fun facts:

  • The leaf structure can span approximately 13-15 feet across and grow up to 20 feet tall. The old leaves die annually and new leaves grow in their place.
  • The stem of Amorphophallus titanum weighs about 110 lbs. on average. 
Corpse flower stem
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

As you can see, Titan Arum's stem is huge.

  • The record for the heaviest stem was in Botanical Garden of Bonn in Germany. This was in 2006 and the stem weighed a whopping 258 lbs.
  • The tallest bloom was 10 feet, 2.25 inches tall. This occurred in 2010 at Winnipesaukee Orchids, located in New Hampshire.
  • Corpse flowers have many cousins including common duckweed, skunk cabbage, calla lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit. 
  • When a Titan Arum bloom happens, it typically is a huge tourist attraction.

Corpse flowers that are noted to be close to blooming often draw in thousands of visitors, due to its rare presence.  In 2013 alone, several conservatories in North America saw high traffic and offered extended hours as people arrived to get a look, and a whiff, at this intriguing plant. I was glad to be able to see this rare beauty up close in the summer of 2013 at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. during the window of time it had bloomed (however, I did miss the time frame when it's odor occurred!).

And yes, there was a line. It was a great experience though and I hope to get the chance again someday.

Crowd comes to see Titan Arum at US Botanic Garden
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Crowd visits the rare bloom of the "corpse flower" at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. in July 2013.

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Comments

Sep 22, 2014 5:22pm
Browna86
Can't remember when the first I heard of this plant but do recall seeing it in a television show. Still a fascinating plant. Thanks for sharing.
Sep 24, 2014 4:24am
LeighGoessl
It seems to have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. I know when I went to DC to check it out, there was a line around the building and down the sidewalk (and this wasn't even during "prime" time or on a weekend). Worth the wait though. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Oct 7, 2014 5:18pm
shrawan440
Nice article!!
Oct 9, 2014 3:30am
LeighGoessl
Thanks shrawan440!
Jan 17, 2015 10:53am
HLesley
This flower sounds both fascinating and repelling at the same time. I would love to see it, but am definitely not attracted to the rotting corpse smell.
Jan 17, 2015 10:53am
HLesley
This flower sounds both fascinating and repelling at the same time. I would love to see it, but am definitely not attracted to the rotting corpse smell.
Jan 18, 2015 3:59am
LeighGoessl
I'm not either, but I must admit I am intrigued! I was OK with missing the stink though, the main thing I had wanted to see was the bloom and the size.

Thanks for stopping by :)
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Bibliography

  1. "Everyday Mysteries: Five Science Facts from the Library of Congress." Library of Congresss. 4/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "Smelly Situation: Why Some Flowers Reek." Live Science. 18/7/2013. 4/09/2014 <Web >
  3. "9 things to know about the corpse flower at Denver Botanic Gardens." USA Today. 18/09/2015. 15/03/2016 <Web >
  4. "Corpse Flower: Facts About the Smelly Plant." Live Science. 21/09/2015. 15/03/2016 <Web >

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