Perhaps one of the most sensational plants at any botanic garden, the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) always draws a crowd. This impressive species is known for its size, smell, and the relative rarity of its bloom.
What is it?
The corpse flower is a member of the Araceae family, also referred to as the aroid or arum family. This family includes a number of popular house plants such as Philodendron, calla lilies (Zantedeschia) and peace lilies (Spathiphyllum).
Aroids all share a unique flower structure made up of a spadix and a spathe. Together these two elements create the appearance of a flower, even though the actual flowers are situated on the spadix.
Terms to Know
Spadix – A fleshy spike containing a cluster of small flowers. The spadix of the titan arum emits a foul odor to help attract pollinators such as flies and carrion beetles.
Spathe – A modified leaf that surrounds the spadix, and is often brightly colored. The dark red interior of the titan arum spathe mimics the look of rotting flesh.
The titan arum is renowned for producing the largest unbranched flowering structure in the world. The leaf stage can be equally impressive in size, although not smell. The plant sends up a single leaf resembling a tree that can reach more than 16 feet in height. The leaf and flowering stages emerge at different times from a giant tuber, similar to a bulb, that often weighs more than 60 pounds and measures several feet across.
The titan arum is native to tropical regions of Sumatra, Indonesia. It’s scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum, translates to “giant misshapen phallus.” Sir David Attenborough coined the name titan arum in 1995, after deciding the Latin name was too rude for TV audiences.
History in Cultivation
The first corpse flower bloom in cultivation took place at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1889. New York Botanic Garden hosted the first blooms in the Western Hemisphere, in 1937 and again in 1939. It attracted so much attention, the titan arum was named the official flower of the Bronx, a title it held until being replaced by the daylily in 2006.
Only 41 blooms were documented in cultivation before the year 2000. Now, it is not uncommon to expect at least a half dozen blooms each summer at botanic gardens around the world. Successes in seed production using shared pollen and better growing techniques for leaf cuttings account for the increase in the number of cultivated plants. However, the species remains threatened in its native wild habitat.
The Missouri Botanical Garden’s first titan arum bloom happened in 2012. But our history with this plant goes back much further than even we realized until recently. An archived copy of the Bulletin announces the arrival of two tubers in 1932. These new additions attracted quite a bit of attention.
The fact that these bulbs belong to the same family as the well-known “jack-in-the-pulpit” brought forth the facetious remark from the press that: … “If that new jack-in-the-pulpit at Shaw’s Garden is ten feet high, oughtn’t we to call him John?”
Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, 1933
The two plants were placed in the palm house, and records show they produced six leaf stalks over the years. Accounts in the Bulletin claim one plant even produced a bud, but it broke off while being moved and before reaching full flower. A mention of the plant in 1935 describes “bewildering growths” but there is no further reference to a corpse flower bloom at the Garden until 2012.
In Our Collections
Living — The Garden has one of the largest and most comprehensive living collections of aroids, including nearly a dozen corpse flowers. The titan arums are cultivated in the greenhouse range, only being moved into public view in anticipation of a bloom. Our aroid greenhouses are cultivated by horticulturist Emily Colletti.
Read More: Corpse Flower Has Stinky Company
Herbarium — Dr. Tom Croat has worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden for 50 years, and is considered an authority on the aroid family. Among the thousands of herbarium specimens he’s added to the Garden’s collection over the years, Croat has also created vouchers for the titan arum that can be used to research the species.
Library — The Garden’s rare book collection is a great place to find beautiful plant illustrations, many of which have also been digitized. This includes images of several Amorphophallus species depicted in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
Experience the rare flowering of a corpse flower firsthand at the Garden this fall!
Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist