Questions and Chaos

Life in the 21st Century

Corpse Flower – Amorphophallus titanum

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Somewhere in the  tropical rain forests of Sumatra, plants like this are growing, blooming, pollinating, creating seeds, feeding birds and growing again. This plant grows for seven to ten years before  blooming.  A plant in the New York Botanical garden took forty years to finally bloom. These photographs are from the second day of blooming at the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta. This particular plant, which staff have named Putrella, has bloomed in 2013, 2015 and  again in 2017. The Muttart has been able to create the conditions for  growing and blooming a complex, equatorial  plant in North America’s most northern city. That is quite an accomplishment.

It is called “Corpse Flower” in its native surroundings because of the putrid smell that disperses when the spathe opens. Its scientific Latin name, Amorphophallus titanum, means “giant misshapen penis”.   The plant produces the largest flowering structure and one of the  worst odors in the plant kingdom. The smell mimics that of  something dead and decomposing. This smell attracts the beetles that are necessary to pollinate the plant and produce seeds.

The actual flowers are contained inside the round bottom part just above the ground. The spike in the middle is called the spadix and the petal like collar around it is the spathe. The bloom only lasts about thirty six hours. These photos were taken on the second day when the spathe is already closing and the scent is no longer perceptible to humans.

Amorphophallus titanum has an interesting life cycle. It grows from an underground bulb like structure called a corm. The corm of Putrella weighs over 200 pounds. The corm produces a pointed sprout that develops into either a leaf or the flower. The leaf can be over six feet tall. To the untrained eye it looks like a tree but its structure is that of a single compound leaf.

The leaf grows for a year, storing energy in the corm, then dies back. Year after year the sprout will produce another leaf until there is enough stored nutrition to produce a flower. How does a plant “know” that it has enough energy to produce a flower?  Imagine the intricate biochemistry and DNA activation that must take place to make this spectacular flower grow instead of a leaf. Imagine a six foot caterpillar   turning itself into a butterfly and also turning itself back again.

The bloom usually opens at night. At this time the plant also heats up to 98°F. The increased temperature helps to spread the smell as far as possible to attract insects.  Both male and female flowers grow in the same inflorescence.  The female flowers open the first night, then close, and the male flowers open the second night.  This prevents the plant from self pollinating. In the two days the flower structure is open it must attract enough insects to carry pollen to and from another flower somewhere in the jungle.

Once the female flowers are pollinated, they grow into many red berries. These berries are poisonous for humans but loved by birds. The birds then poop the seeds all over the jungle and the cycle begins again.

This isn’t virtual reality crafted by a computer. There’s just a seed in the dirt with sunshine and rain.  The  drama continues unabated for millennia.