Behold: The Titan-Arum, or Corpse Flower (All Photos By Gail)
On Wednesday, June 27th, I took a three-hour lunch break in the middle of a work day so I could take the train up the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx to see the Corpse Flower bloom. I had been following the NYBG’s Instagram feed for a couple of days while it was on bloom-watch, and knew that once the plant blooms you have about 24 hours to see it before it wilts. Considering that these plants bloom only once every 2 to 10 years, I knew it would be worth the hassle to get up there and, as you can see by these photos, it was!
Here are some fascinating Corpse Flower facts that I learned while I was dancing around the selfie-takers to get these pictures. Titan-Arum (Amorphopallus titanium), or Corpse Flower is a native to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Its enormous flower spike is the largest inflorescence (flower structure) in the Plant Kingdom. This Titan-arum was nurtured in the warm tropical zone of the Nolan Greenhouses. The hot and humid conditions in the greenhouse mimic the natural conditions of Sumatra, and the plant must be watered and fertilized copiously. Titan-arum blooms are rare and unpredictable. Each plant takes seven to ten years to store enough energy to bloom for the first time. This Titan-arum is 11 years old.
The fleshy spike, called a spadix, bears small flowers in rings around its base. The spadix can grow up to 12 feet tall, and is wrapped in a frilly, modified leaf called the spathe. When the plant is ready to bloom, the spathe unfurls, exposing the flowers inside. You may recognized the structure’s resemblance to a calla-lilly, anthurium, and jack-in-the-pulpit, which are all relatives in the arum family, Araceae.
Amorphopallus titanium is often called corpse flower because when it blooms it emits a powerful stench similar to that of rotting meat. This scent, along with the deep-red, meaty color of the open spathe, attracts insect pollinators that feed on dead animals. Which brings me to the question everyone wants to ask: how gross did it smell? From where I was standing, about five or six feet from the flower, the smell reminded me of when you empty the water from a vase that fresh-cut flowers have been sitting in for a week. Funky, but not repulsive. If you put your nose right up on it, it would probably be a different story.
Titan-arums take years to form flower buds, but when they finally do, the flowers mature very quickly. Horticulturists noticed that a six-inch-tall flower bud had formed on Friday, June 1st. By June 18th, the bud was 57 inches tall! Wow!
Later, growth slows significantly. Two leaves at the base of the spathe shrivel and fall off. The spathe begins to open, revealing the red-purple color inside, and completely unfurls over the course of about 36 hours. During full bloom, the spadix self-heats to approximately human body temperature, which helps to disseminate odor particles.
Displayed alongside the blooming plant are several other Titan-arums, in various stages of growth.
For most of its life, a Titan-arum lives as a dormant underground plant stem that stores energy. Occasionally it produces vegetation that grows up to 12 feet tall. Though it looks like a slender tree, this structure is botanically only one enormous leaf, divided into many small leaflets. The leaf collects energy for 12 to 18 months. Between leaf cycles, the plant goes dormant for up to one year.
The smallest plants on display are the seedlings that are decedents of the plant that flowered at the NYBG in 2016, and another Titan-Arum that bloomed at the Denver Botanic Gardens one week later. The NYBG collaborated with colleagues in Denver to use pollen from the New York plant to pollinate the flowers of the Denver plant. In seven to ten years, these plants may produce flowers of their own.
The Garden’s previous Corpse Flower — the third specimen ever to bloom at NYBG — is the one that bloomed in late July, 2016, attracting over 25,000 visitors to the Garden in just a few days. This is only the fourth Corpse Flower to bloom at NYBG since June 8th, 1937. If you ever have the chance to see one of these plants in person, you should definitely take advantage of it. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!!
All Photographs were taken in the Enid A, Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.