Corpse Flower: The smelliest, largest flower in the world

What’s that smell? It’s the zoo’s corpse plant.

A Toronto Zoo first, the corpse plant (Amorphophallus titanum) is projected to bloom soon. This species only blooms for 8-36 hours and this is the first time this species has bloomed in the GTA, and the fifth time one has bloomed within Canada.

The zoo’s Horticulture Division currently cares for six specimens of Amorphophallus titanum – the titan arum, or, more descriptively, the corpse flower or stink plant. However, one of its five-year-old species has begun its early bloom (approximately four years ahead of schedule). Native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the titan arum is related to peace- and calla lilies. But, as you might guess from its name, the corpse flower’s blossoms don’t exactly smell like roses. Instead, this species relies on carrion beetles and flies for pollination, which it attracts with an aroma that – yes – resembles rotting meat. It’s been called the plant kingdom’s worst odour.

Grown from seed, it can take six to ten years for a plant to produce its first flower, after which it can take several more years for it to bloom again. One of the reasons it takes so long between blooms is that the titan arum produces one of the largest flowering structures in the entire world. The pale central “tower” of the inflorescence (known botanically as a spadix) is typically 2 meters tall! This is wrapped in a single large spathe – a modified leaf that looks like a big bell-shaped petal. To match the corpse flower’s aroma, this spathe has a dark red, ridged interior … just like a piece of exposed flesh. Flies and beetles attracted by the odour crawl down the spathe to the base of the spadix, where the small flowers that produce pollen and seeds grow, enabling pollination. Since these pollinators tend to be nocturnal by nature, the blooms usually open in the late afternoon – and then begin to wilt by the next morning. It’s a lot of effort for a short window of opportunity. Our titan arum specimens arrived at the zoo in 2013 from Niagara Botanical Garden, so it could still be years before they share their unmistakable blossoms (and aroma) with us.

This plant species is unique because of how infrequent it blooms, and because of how little time it has to be pollinated by only three species of beetle. Plants use all sorts of techniques to encourage animals to pollinate their flowers. Bright colours, perfumed fragrances, and sweet nectar encourage butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, sunbirds, and even bats to visit flowers, inadvertently carrying pollen and fertilizing seeds along the way. But while sweet-smelling, colourful flowers have been cultivated extensively by humans, this is not the only strategy that plants use for pollination.

Like much of Sumatra’s wildlife – including Sumatran orangutans and Sumatran tigers – the titan arum is threatened by habitat loss. Not only is space an issue, but as forests decline, so do hornbills, which are a primary seed distributor. Thankfully, through advances in horticultural techniques, the intricacies of breeding this unusual plant are slowly being uncovered, allowing us to maintain them in managed care as insurance against a crash in their wild population.

Check out this once in a lifetime opportunity to view the corpse plant bloom.

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