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Explained: Why are thousands lining up to see the foul-smelling ‘corpse flower’?

The excitement surrounding the corpse flower, also known by its scientific name Amorphophallus titanum, is not unfounded considering that the ultra-rare plant is known to bloom only once every seven to ten years. The flower is also considered to be one of the largest in the world.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: May 20, 2021 4:47:40 pm
People line up to take photos with a rare corpse flower in Alameda, Calif., on May 17, 2021. (Peter Hartlaub/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Over a thousand people queued up outside an abandoned gas station in San Francisco’s Bay Area this week to catch a glimpse of the extremely rare and aptly named ‘corpse flower’, known for its putrid smell, which is often compared to that of rotting flesh. A similar scene played out in a greenhouse at Philadelphia’s Temple University around the same time, where two of the endangered flowering plants are blooming for the first time since they were brought to campus.

The excitement surrounding the corpse flower, also known by its scientific name Amorphophallus titanum, is not unfounded considering that the ultra-rare plant is known to bloom only once every seven to ten years. The flower is also considered to be one of the largest in the world.

While the plant is native to Indonesia, its saplings have been cultivated in zoos, botanical gardens and greenhouses around the world over the years.

So, what is the ‘corpse flower’?

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The ‘corpse flower’ is a flowering plant, which is native to the rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia. The scientific name of the rare plant, Amorphophallus titanum, quite literally translates to giant, misshapen phallus — presumably due to its appearance.

In about a decade, the ‘corpse flower’ can grow to be up to 10 feet tall and unveil two of its key components — a deep red skirt-like petal known as the spathe and a yellow rod-like ‘spadix’. Another crucial component of the plant is the ‘corm’, a fleshy underground plant stem which acts as a storage organ where the corpse plant’s energy is stored. The unique plant is said to have the biggest corm in existence, sometimes weighing around 100 kgs.

Small male and female flowers grow towards the base of the spadix, which, if pollinated, grows into a large head of burnt orange coloured seeds.

The corpse flower is known to be one of the world’s largest ‘unbranched inflorescence’ or a stalk bearing a cluster of flowers. The average corpse flower has a lifespan of about three-four decades.

Apart from its appearance, the flower is known for its pungent stench, which is said to be similar to rotting meat or a decaying cadaver. The plant emits the distinct smell only when it is in bloom, which happens once every 10 years or so and only for a brief period of time.

What is behind the corpse flower’s putrid stench?

The corpse flower has its distinct smell for a reason. It is also known as a Carrion flower, or a flower that emits a heady odour in order to attract pollinating insects in the wild such as scavenging flies and beetles.

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A 2010 study published in the Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry journal found that the main odorant which gave the flower its distinct smell was dimethyl trisulfide, the same compound that is emitted from cancerous wounds, microorganisms and some vegetables. The stench is also caused by chemicals like dimethyl disulfide and methyl thiolacetate, which are responsible for the garlic and cheese-like odour, as well as isovaleric acid, which gives the flower its sweat-like smell.

The flowers of the plant are pollinated by scavenging insects, which are drawn to it due to its odour.

Why is it so rare?

While over the years the Indonesian corpse flower has been cultivated in countries around the world, the plant population appears to be dwindling in its native land of Sumatra due to deforestation for crops and lumber. It was listed as an endangered plant in 2018 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It is not easy to preserve the corpse flower outside its natural habitat. It requires a very specific level of heat and humidity to thrive. The fact that very few specimens exist today makes it difficult to maintain the genetic variety needed to grow a healthy corpse flower plant. The lack of genetic variety leads to inbreeding, which means closely related plants are bred with one another. According to horticulture experts, this results in fewer seeds and ultimately leads to a decline in the plant’s population.

According to the New York Times, the Chicago Botanic Garden launched an initiative to conserve the corpse flower by increasing genetic diversity. It does this by applying the same principles adopted at zoos to conserve animals that are close to extinction.

Researchers are collecting genetic material from corpse flowers being cultivated in over 100 gardens and private collections around the world to create a ‘family tree’. The aim is to create a studbook or database with all pedigrees of the rare plant, and to identify genetic factors that could impact its future.

Based on the collected plant material, they will be able to identify the ideal match for breeding as well as underrepresented genetic traits.

The seeds of the plant, known as recalcitrant seeds, are not easy to store either. Drying and freezing — the main methods to store seeds — will kill them.

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