How far would you go to see a flower that stinks of rotting flesh? Far enough one would think, if one, it’s one of the largest flowers on earth, two, it’s an endangered species that only blooms once every few years, say four to 10 years , and three, flowering lasted only 24-36 hours.
For me it was no more than a five mile drive down the road to see the famous ‘corpse flower’.
Corpse flower – so called because it smells like rotting flesh – is a flowering plant in the family Araceae, formally/botanically called Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum. First discovered and described in the world by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in 1878, it is native to Sumatra, Indonesia, where it is called bunga bangkai — bunga means flower, bangkai means corpse/corpse/carrion. Reaching up to 10 feet tall, it boasts the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world – and it stinks to the skies.
Why the stench? Experts have identified different molecules responsible for the stench, including dimethyl trisulfide (found in spoiled cheese), trimethylamine (rotten fish) and isovaleric acid (sweat socks). The smell, color, and even temperature of corpse flowers are meant to attract pollinators. Beetles, flesh flies and other carnivorous insects that usually eat dead flesh flock to the dead flowers for a feast.
The flowering of the Corpse Flower is quite an event because it happens so rarely and unpredictably. Flowering is not seasonal; instead, it happens when there’s enough energy stored in a huge underground stem called a “corm” – and then it goes… BLOOM! It takes years for a single corpse flower to gather enough energy to begin its flowering cycle.
Flowering requires very special conditions, including warm day and night temperatures and high humidity, which makes botanic gardens well suited to support the event. So many botanical gardens around the world nurture the corpse flower, and its blooming becomes a local event. In recent months, corpse flowers have bloomed in botanical gardens as far-flung as St. Louis, Missouri, San Antonio, Texas and Warsaw, Poland, drawing crowds in the thousands. The Missouri one even had a name – Morty, probably short for undertaker.
While more than 100 corpse flowers thrive in botanic gardens around the world (none in India, as far as I know), they are listed as “endangered” on the International Union’s Red List of Threatened Plants. nature conservation (IUCN). According to the United States Botanic Garden, fewer than 1,000 individuals are left in the wild.
Our local Washington DC celebrity bloomed this week, and we (me with my wife and kids) headed to the National Botanical Garden for a dekko. By the time we arrived it was already retreating and the stench had dissipated.
Apparently the stench is at its peak between midnight and 4am in the middle of the night, so to speak.