Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Wonderfully Lethal - The Corpse Flower

Hidden in the depths of Indonesian rainforest of Sumatra blooms a very attractive flower, the rare Titan Arum. This flower is described as the world’s largest flower. But being huge isn’t the characteristic it’s mostly known for. In fact, the very realistic nickname of “Corpse Flower” would let you avoid to smell this great flower. Letting your nose have a contact with its smell is the worst idea ever.

It’s been said that the smell of the Corpse Flower resembles a mixture of rotten flesh and decomposing garbage. So it’s not a pleasurable aroma. But, of course, nature never fails, so there’s a reason for this awful scent. The purpose of this smell is to attract pollinators, more specifically sweat bees, flies, and dung beetles. These insects are attracted to the smell because, thinking it’s rotting flesh, seems to be the perfect place to lay their eggs. This flower don’t like to play fair, but this trick ensures its survival. When the insects lands on the flower, they become covered in pollen. After laying their eggs, they fly off to spread the pollen across the forest.

The Italian botanist and explorer Odoardo Beccari had the unpleasant experience to smell the corpse aroma and wrote about the flower in 1878, saying this flower is a carnivorous man-eater. He didn’t know it was just trying to make a pollinator feel right at home. Scientists and Botanists are still trying to figure out what exactly inside of the plant produces the smell. A sulfur-infused chemical is almost definitely present, giving it the tinge of rotten egg. Additionally, it’s been said that putrescine and cadaverine, compounds found in decomposing flesh, could also be involved. These sweet compounds are also found in other plants in the Aroid family, a group of plants friendly known as “Skunk Cabbage”. It is also believed that the plant produces heat, allowing the aroma to spread further out into the forest.

To be more specific, the Corpse Flower shouldn’t be considered as a single flower but a cluster of flowers, called an inflorescence, which has hundreds of male and female flowers buried at the base of stem, which botanists believe are the actual part of the plant that produces the stink.

There are two visible parts of the Corpse Flower…Plant…whatever it is: a petal-like outer covering (called the spathe) and the part inside of the spathe, which is only visible when the plant is in bloom. This part of the plant (called spadix) is a dark velvety purple color that spreads the rotted flesh smell. When the plant is getting ready to bloom, the spadix can reach heights upwards of seven to eight feet tall.

What makes it even more unique is that watching the flower blooming is a very rare privilege because it can take years for the Corpse Flower to reach the blooming stage. Furthermore, botanists still haven’t established any sort of timetable to mark when the Corpse Flower will bloom. When it is not blooming, it still produces leaflets attached together, forming a cocoon.

Blooming is not so simple. The process of storing energy can take between a year and 40 years, but when it does, grows at a rapid rate, up to six inches a day, so fast you literally can see the change with the naked eye if you watch patiently. When the plant finally blooms, after potentially many years of waiting, the entire blooming cycle takes 24 to 30 hours. A wonderful process to see, maybe not so wonderful to smell…
The fruits of the Corpse Flower

The scientific name given by Odoardo Beccari and his men Amorphophallus Titanum isn’t very dignified, as it is loosely translates to “misshapen gigantic penis”, a reference to the large spadix. I’d rather call it with the name given by the Indonesian natives, “Bunga Bangkai”, meaning “dead man flower”. At the time, the flowers dotted the forests. Today, Indonesian officials believe it to be endangered due to the destruction of its habitat, the Sumatran rainforest. But unfortunately, this is the same old story…

The seed of the Corpse Flower
Returning to Beccari and his explorers…When they first saw the flower, they concluded that the only thing that could have pollinated it was an elephant. To study the plant further, Beccari had his men dig up the 130 pound specimen and drag it back to Italy with them. As Beccari wrote in his journal called “Two men could scarcely carry it!”, Beccari also brought seeds with him and dispersed them among institutions. The first bloom in European captivity was at England’s Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, near London, in 1889. The Corpse Flower was a sensation and attracted such a crowd that the police were called in for crowd control.
Another of the plant grown outside of its natural habitat didn’t bloom again until the mid 1920s. This first blooming of the Corpse Flower in the United States was at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937, using seeds from the University of Bonn’s flower (in Germany). It was such a hit with the public, the plant was designated “the official flower of the Bronx”, which it remained until 2000 when the Daylily replaced it.

The most recent blooming happened at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California (right outside of Pasadena) during the weekend of August 23, 2014. A writer had the privilege of being there as the Corpse Flower blossomed and got a really good whiff of it. He wrote in his article:  “it didn’t smell very good”. No?! Really?! What did you expect!?!

Today, the Corpse Flower is much more common across the globe. Maybe for its hugeness, maybe for its pleasant dump-aroma. There are over 80 Corpse Flowers in the United States right now, continuously studied and preserved by botanists and gardeners. If you like enormous plants and severe asphyxiation, The Corpse Flower needs your nose.

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