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Rebirth for the corpse flower

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16 2011 - Archie, the blossom of a corpse flower, is dying in the greenhouse of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But Betty, a companion corpse flower, is growing fast. She should reach her spectacular -- and smelly -- full bloom soon. 

The corpse flower, titan arum, is the largest flower of its type in the world. Technically, it is an unbranched inflorescence, meaning that within the flower structure are many male and female flowers.

First, this flower grows faster than a teenage boy. Archie first poked out of the ground about April 11 and had grown to 54 inches when he bloomed on the evening of May 12. Titan arum is a night bloomer, reaching its peak around midnight. The blooming phase lasts less than a day, and then it wilts and collapses within four days.

When the corpse flower blooms, its huge red and ruffled "spathe" unfurls and exposes the male and female flower parts at the base of its phallus-like "spadix."

In a spectacular example of adaptation, the blooming corpse plant emits a stench of sulfurous gases like rotting flesh. Then, to spread the gases in a bigger radius, the spadix heats up to near body temperature (about 95 degrees F). The internal color of the spathe is about the same as a raw steak. The appearance and odor of decaying meat attract pollinating insects, thought to be sweat bees, flies and, perhaps, carrion beetles.

Pollination takes place in a carefully timed (by nature) sequence of events that ensures cross pollination. First, when the spathe is most open and spectacular, the female flowers at the very bottom of the spadix become receptive to fertilization. In nature, insects carrying pollen from another titan arum will rub that pollen off onto the female parts. After a day or so, the female flowers are no longer receptive, and the male flower's pollen matures.

In the wild, insect visitors pick up the pollen and carry it onto another plant. In the greenhouse, Kathy Upton, the UMSL greenhouse's horticulturist will collect the pollen. She will keep it to try to fertilize Betty when she opens. If she is successful, Betty will produce fruit and seeds in 9-12 months.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to produce Archie's flower. The University of Missouri-St. Louis plant last bloomed 13 years ago and has been building up its energy stores since then. The plant sends up one leaf at a time that grows to more than 15 feet and lives for just a few months. Click here for a picture of the leaf. While that lobed, umbrella-shaped leaf lives, it makes sugar that is converted into starchy compounds stored in its underground stem called a "corm." The corms of the corpse plant have been discovered weighing up to 90 pounds and are a source of human food in the Sumatran rainforest.

The plant that produced Archie was grown from one of the seeds that a California physician, James Symon, collected in 1995 and distributed to botanical institutions around the world. It was the first of the seeds to bloom, and this is the archetype -- shortened to "Archie." Only about 100 titan arums have ever bloomed in the United States, and only 10 of those are in the Midwest.

The UMSL greenhouse contains other close relatives of titan arum, whose botanical name is Amorphophallus titanium. One, Amorphophallus gigas, also from Sumatra, produces a slightly smaller blossom, on a much taller stem. UMSL's specimen is already pressed against the greenhouse's ceiling.

The local relative of titan arum is the Jack in the Pulpit. Both are members of the Araceae family. Other family members include calla lily, dieffenbachia, philodendron, skunkweed and the tiny aquatic duckweed.

Archie and Betty, titan arums, should not be confused with another "corpse flower" from Sumatra. Rafflesia arnoldii is the world's largest single flower, measuring up to a yard in diameter. It also emits the stench of decaying meat. But Rafflesia arnoldii is a parasite with no visible leaf, stem or roots.

Archie's corm (the underground stem) weighs in a 22 pounds. Betty's corm is about 40 pounds, so her blossom will be even taller and larger. She is expected to open in one to two weeks, and the webcam will remain in operation until the end of May. For a series of photos showing Archie and Betty's growth, click here.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching technical writing at WU's engineering school. 

Jo Seltzer