It was a stinky summer at The Huntington!
Three Corpse Flowers bloomed this summer at The Huntington; the first in last August and two more earlier in September drawing crowds from near and far.
The World’s Largest Flower
The Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) has been called the world’s largest flower, with a bloom that can grow to more than 8 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter. At the peak of its growth, the Titan Arum can grow up to 6 inches a day! It is a rare tropical plant native to the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia.
When in flower, it exudes a foul stench that smells like rotting meat. For that reason, Indonesians call it Bunga Bangkai, which means “Corpse Flower.” The plant grows from a large corm, a bulb-like tuber, under the soil. The visible parts are the spadix (the fleshy upright column) and the spathe (the petal-like outer covering).
Why Does It Smell?
When the plant blooms, the spathe opens to reveal a velvety maroon interior and begins to emit a foul stench, earning it the nickname “Stinky Plant.” Though everyone smells something different, the scent is made up of several different compounds: primarily dimethyl trisulfide (stinky cheese or boiled cabbage) and dimethyl disulfide (garlic), but also levels of trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet flowery scent), and indole. The purpose of the putrid stench? To attract nighttime pollinators like flesh flies, carrion beetles, and sweat bees.
Where Does It Grow?
The Corpse Flower, or Titan Arum, is native to the rainforests of western Sumatra, Indonesia, where it grows on limestone hills at low elevations, in forest openings where there is enough light and space to produce its massive leaf and inflorescence, or flower-bearing structure. The climate is warm and rainy, with little variance throughout the year. Although it is one of the most famous plants in the world, little is known of its natural history.
When Will It Bloom?
Nobody can predict when a Corpse Flower will bloom. A Titan Arum in bloom is as rare as it is spectacular. A plant can go for many years without flowering. When the corm comes out of dormancy and a bud emerges, it will either develop into a flower or a new leaf; it’s when we see the tip of the emerging spadix that we know a bloom will occur. Being in the right place at the right time to see one of these magnificent plants in bloom can be a once-in-a-lifetime treat!
From Jungle to Greenhouse
The Corpse Flower was first made known to the outside world by Italian botanist and explorer Odoardo Beccari in 1878. Seeds and corms brought to Italy at that time were shared with other gardens. The first flowering of the Corpse Flower in cultivation was in 1889 at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, from the Beccari introduction. It flowered in the Western Hemisphere for the first time at the New York Botanical Garden in 1937. Few specimens of Amorphophallus titanum were grown or flowered until the 1990s, when seeds were gathered in the wild and distributed widely among botanical gardens and private collectors. Since then, this plant has bloomed on over 500 occasions in gardens around the world.
The Anatomy of the Titan Arum
The size of the Corpse Flower bloom is probably its greatest attraction. The tallest flowering specimen at The Huntington—aptly named Stankosaurus Rex—measured over 8 feet tall (98 inches). The world record holder comes in at over 12 feet tall. The “tuber,” which is actually a corm, can weigh over 300 pounds and the solitary umbrella-like leaf can be over 15 feet tall. But it’s the rotting flesh smell of the flowers that makes this plant so memorable and notorious. Adding to the mystique is the ephemeral nature of such a massive flowering effort, lasting only two to three days, and the rarity of seeing a specimen in bloom at any time, anywhere.
Corpse Flower Life Cycle
When the Titan Arum blooms, it comes straight out of the soil from an underground corm, looking like a giant bud without any foliage. But the plant does produce a single, giant leaf when it isn’t in bloom. However, you might not recognize it as a leaf: A mature plant will produce a leaf about 12 feet tall, consisting of a smooth stem topped with a fringe of leaflets, resembling a slender, green palm tree. Several of them are on display in The Huntington’s Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science. The leaf can last longer than a year before it dies away.
What is often referred to as the plant’s flower is an inflorescence, a specialized structure that supports small individual flowers. The Corpse Flower produces the most massive unbranched inflorescence of any flowering plant. In common to all members of the aroid family (Araceae), the inflorescence consists of an outer protective sheath (spathe) that surrounds a central column bearing small individual flowers (spadix). Better-known members of this family include philodendrons, anthuriums, calla lilies, pothos, and others.
Research and Conservation
The blooming of a rare plant like Amorphophallus titanum provides The Huntington with an opportunity to pursue three of its most important missions: research, education, and conservation. With each flowering, botanists learn more about this unusual plant, while The Huntington shares with its visitors not only some fascinating new facts, but also an increased appreciation for the wonder and diversity of the plant kingdom. Through ongoing conservation efforts, The Huntington helps to protect rare and endangered plants from extinction.
Ex Situ Conservation
From the moment our first Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum) bloomed in 1999, The Huntington’s mission for ex situ conservation became clear: facilitate the pollination of the flowers, initiate the germination of the seeds, and distribute as many seedlings as possible to various botanical gardens throughout the United States. Fast forward more than 20 years later, and we have successfully achieved this vision.
In 2002, pollen extracted from our Corpse Flower effectively pollinated a specimen at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Subsequently, we have nurtured the offspring and generously shared them with interested botanical gardens. The progeny flourished to the extent that we had a surplus, allowing us to offer a limited quantity through The Huntington’s International Succulent Introductions program, which distributes new or rare succulents to collectors, nurseries, and institutions. Although the Corpse Flower is not a succulent, it boasts a substantial subterranean tuber that stores water and nutrients, sustaining the plant during its sporadic yet unpredictable dormant phases.
Corpse Flowers for Everyone!
Before 2000, cultivating this species was a rarity, and prior to 1990, it was virtually absent from any collection. This inspired us to extend a Corpse Flower donation offer to every botanical garden that expressed interest. This commitment remains steadfast to this day. Recent contributions have benefited such institutions as the Lamberton Conservatory in Rochester, New York, and the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, with a future commitment to donate to Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.
Successful Conservation Efforts
The native population of the Corpse Flower—designated as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—has dwindled to fewer than a thousand plants. In contrast, the cultivated population has thrived due to collaborative conservation efforts. Presently, more than 90 botanical gardens in 18 countries cultivate Amorphophallus titanum.
More Corpse Flower Facts
- How long does the bloom last?
Individual bloom times vary, but typically it’s several hours from when the bloom begins to open until it’s fully open.
- What makes it smell like rotten meat?
The chemicals responsible for the odor were once thought to be putrescine and cadaverine, which are the chemicals that produce the odor in decaying animal flesh. Researchers recently analyzed the odors of several species of Amorphophallus and found the chemicals responsible for the smell of A. titanum (and other species) are dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide. As a comparison, one of the chemicals responsible for the odor of rotten eggs is hydrogen sulfide.
- How do you pollinate it?
A paintbrush is used to dab up the donor pollen from male flowers and is applied to the receptive stigmas of the female flowers on the first night or the morning after it opens. The window of opportunity for this is roughly one day because on the first day after opening, the male flowers shed their pollen and the female flowers are no longer receptive. The plant does this to prevent autogamy, or self-pollination, to maximize the distribution of genes and maintain more adaptive genetic diversity.
- Is it possible to grow one in my backyard?
It’s possible, but unlikely. The Corpse Flower prefers an evenly warm and humid environment, such as a greenhouse. We recently received a picture from someone who had one blooming in a container in his backyard in Seal Beach! While Amorphophallus titanum is very rare, many similar but much smaller plants can be found growing in home gardens. The closest relative may be Amorphophallus rivieri, which grows to a height of about 4 feet and smells nearly as bad as its larger cousin. Two other related plants are the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), which grows to about 2 to 3 feet in height, and the Voodoo Lily (Sauromatum venosum), which grows to 12 to 18 inches in overall height. Calla lilies, anthuriums, and philodendrons are also members of the same family.
Remember the Smell Forever!
Show off your bravery in the face of the stink with our fun Corpse Flower merch. Shop the Huntington Store when you visit or online.
Corpse Flowers at The Huntington
In August 1999, The Huntington was the focus of worldwide attention when it exhibited the first Amorphophallus titanum ever to bloom in California. It was only the 11th recorded bloom of one of these plants in the United States. During the Titan’s short bloom, Huntington botanists hand-pollinated the plant with its own pollen, using an experimental technique (self-pollination is normally impossible). Since that extraordinary event, The Huntington has shared the flowering of this rare species with the public in subsequent years. Currently, we maintain several dozen plants of Amorphophallus titanum in our greenhouses and planted in the Conservatory. This summer, our 22nd Corpse Flower bloomed in August, immediately followed by expected blooms 23 and 24 in September!