With rows of Dr. Seuss-like flowers hidden deep inside, the corpse flower plays dead to lure some unusual pollinators.
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For a plant that emits an overpowering stench of rotting carcass, you’d think the corpse flower would have a PR problem.
But it’s quite the opposite: Anytime a corpse flower opens up at a botanical garden somewhere in the world visitors flock to catch a whiff and get a glimpse of the giant plant, which can grow up to 10 feet tall when it blooms and generally only does so every two to 10 years.
A corpse flower’s whole survival strategy is based on deception. It’s not a flower and it’s not a rotting dead animal, but it mimics both. Pollination remains out of sight, deep within the plant. KQED’s Deep Look staff was able to film inside a corpse flower, revealing the rarely-seen moment when the plant’s male flowers release glistening strings of pollen.
It’s not that the corpse flower is the only plant to attract pollinators like flies and beetles by putting out bad smells. Nor is it the only one that produces male and female flowers at the same time.
“The fact that it does all of this at this outsized scale – all of this together – is what’s so unique about it, biologically,” said Pati Vitt, senior scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
When a titan arum is ready to flower, a stalk starts to grow out of the soil. Once it has reached four to 10 feet, a red “skirt” unfurls. Though it has the appearance of a petal, it’s really a modified leaf called a spathe that looks like a raw steak.
The yellow stalk underneath is called the spadix and it gives the plant its scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum, or roughly “giant deformed phallus.”
In its native Sumatra, the corpse flower opens for only 24 hours. In captivity, it often lasts longer. With just a day to reproduce, the stakes are high.
— How many chemicals make up the smell of the corpse flower?
More than 30 chemicals make up the scent of the corpse flower, according to the 2017 paper “Studies on the floral anatomy and scent chemistry of titan arum” by researchers at the University of Mississippi, University of Florida, Gainsville, and Anadolu University in Turkey:
Some of the chemicals have a pleasant scent. But mostly, the corpse flower at first smells like funky cheese and rotting garlic, as a result of sulphur-smelling compounds. Hours later, the stink changes to what Vanessa Handley, at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley describes as “dead rat in the walls of your house.”
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Great illustration on the lifecycle of the corpse flower by the Chicago Botanic Garden:
University of California Davis Botanical Conservatory:
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