It’s really big. It’s really stinky. It’s really rare. It only musters up the energy to bloom once every five years or so, and when it does, it produces a towering single bloom that looks totally bizarre and smells even worse. Meet Amorphophallus titanum, aka, the corpse flower or titan arum.
This tropical native, originating in Sumatra, is in private collections all over the world, including those of arboretums and university gardens. We’re not sure if that’s because people like torturing themselves with the smell — about which more in a moment — or if they’re tickled by the novelty of this pretty amazing plant. It has the largest unbranched inflorescence recorded worldwide, and has a very long lifecycle to support that astounding single flower. It starts with the production of a lone titan bloom that can exceed ten feet when it’s fully grown.
The flower has a strong smell to attract pollinators, but it’s not the kind of smell you or I tend to appreciate. As you might guess from the name, the corpse flower is one among a group of so-called “carrion flowers” that try to attract pollinators generally found on and around dead and rotting materials, especially meat. The strong aroma of the corpse flower, which can bloom for five or six days before dying, reminds many people of an unattended dead body. Charming.
Once the plant is done flowering, it dies back and a leaf emerges, spreading out into a tall divided canopy that will die back and return each year. After several years of leafing out to store up energy, the corm of the plant will put out a flower and the whole process will begin again. You can see why it blooms so rarely, given how big the flower gets: that’s a lot of work for one plant, even one with a massive corm (one in Germany recently clocked in at 260 pounds).
Due to the rarity of the blooming cycle and the novelty of the experience, many arboretums maintain corpse flower watches, encourage guests to visit when the plant is close to flowering and in bloom, and use it as a tool for teaching the public about tropical plants and habitats. Just last week, a corpse flower in Belgium played to packed houses, and now the US Botanic Garden has one of its own people can drop in on. Visitors can follow the action not just in person, but also online, which is good news for those of us who are plant voyeurs, but don’t really relish meeting the stench of the corpse flower in person. (Or can’t make it to DC for the event.)
Does the online coverage include a live feed? Of course:
If you think sitting around waiting for a plant to bloom sounds like the most fun thing ever, prepare to be entertained for hours by the action at the US Botanic Garden. Incidentally, the fun doesn’t stop when the flower finally goes into full bloom — as a titan arum livestream aficionado, let me tell you that one of the best parts is watching visitors in real life react to the plant in all its glory.