I wasn’t really trying that hard to see the corpse flower, but fate had me traveling up to the Bronx for a class at the New York Botanical Garden on the same day that this giant was scheduled to bloom. That was a week ago and I’ve been thinking about this extraordinary plant and its effect on its human observers ever since.
It was a sticky day that between threats of rain offered blindingly bright cloud cover. This combination could have challenged my willingness to wait in line, but I was already in too deep, having promised my daughter to make this visit, and then there was the line, which itself drew me in. People had dressed up to see a flower! They wore flowered shirts and dresses and jewelry and jaunty summer hats. And the profusion of parasols… a symptom no doubt of the uncertain weather, but the effect was beyond utilitarian, the pinks, pale yellows, and blues contrasting delicately with the white spidery structure of the conservatory building.
Conversations around us were fixated on the flower. A mother and son were anxious: What if it turns out not to be as big as everyone says? Would the smell drive them away before they could get pictures? People departed the building as if in a dream state. Was it the odor or the flower itself? There was an unspoken understanding, it seemed, that it would be wrong to give anything away to those still waiting.
Stepping inside, I understood the dreamy looks of the visitors before me: Here was a hybrid of Jurassic Park and the Enchanted Forest. Amid the graceful backdrop of the other outsize frilly and ferny plantings, the Amorphophallus titanum—for that is its calling-it-like-it-is scientific name—stood on a pedestal in the conservatory pond, peacefully and regally undergoing the changes that all flowers must. The flower had opened earlier in the day, releasing its scent, which had now completely dissipated. The spathe—the skirt-like bract surrounding the flower spike—had started to close back up, revealing just a glimpse of its lush red interior. A security guard kindly shared his cell-phone photos of the fully opened blossom and his own experience of what he respectfully called “the fragrance.”
Amorphophallus titanum closing up but still a sight to behold. Behind it and to the left (green stalk with white speckles) is the vegetative version of the plant. Though it looks like a small tree, that’s actually a compound leaf at the top. The plant sends up leaves periodically to capture the sun’s rays through photosynthesis. This energy is stored in the plant’s enormous corm (up to 200 pounds), until there is enough to produce a flower.
I was disappointed not to have smelled the corpse flower’s scent for myself and couldn’t help feeling that I was cheating, but I did seem to enter the dream state I had imagined seeing on the faces of preceding viewers. Of course, I tried to document this fantastical being with my camera.
Here in the northeast, we are accustomed to tropical plants potted up in our homes and serving as summer annuals in our garden beds. They offer a faint nod to greenery in doctor’s offices and workplaces and therefore, through no fault of their own, have become boring. The A. titanum, native to Sumatra, is no houseplant. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen here.
Or is it?
The corpse flower is a member of the Araceae, or more commonly, arum, family, and somewhat like finding vestiges of dinosaurs in present-day birds, arums abound in native and non-native forms here in the New York City area. As I write, my golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) drapes its viney self over the table. I rescued it years ago from the street. Horribly invasive in tropical forests, it grows eagerly in a pot on my balcony during the summer, requiring only a little water now and then. (I’ve seen these selling for $10 apiece in supermarkets. Crazy!)
My little arum.
Arum italicum grows beautifully in a woodsy bed at my community garden. It too is invasive, from Europe as the name suggests, but under control in this particular spot. Like the corpse flower, on a comparatively tiny scale, it has a flower spike surrounded by a showy spathe. The spathe dies back and the flower spike produces glistening red-orange berries. These remind me of the corpse flower’s red berries, which are eaten by hornbills, who spread their seeds.
Our native eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, has both odor and thermogenesis in common with A. titanum. The corpse flower ensures the spreading of its scent by heating itself up close to the temperature of the human body. The stench attracts carrion flies and dung beetles. Growing in an entirely different environment in wet woods and bogs from Minnesota to the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, the eastern skunk cabbage heats up in early spring, melting through ice and snow. The heat in this case broadcasts its scent to the few early spring pollinators in the woods. These gnats, flies, and beetles find warmth and shelter in the skunk cabbage spathe, which induces them to stay awhile and get more covered in pollen.
Eastern skunk cabbage—hot and stinky like its relative from Sumatra.
All members of the Araceae family have in common crystals of calcium oxalate in parts, usually leaves and flowers, or all of the plant. These needle-like crystals are toxic to many animals although some, including humans, have found ways of getting around that problem, depending on the plant. Apparently hornbills don’t mind, which is a good thing for our rare titan.
For more about the corpse flower, check out this blog by Marc Hachadourian, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections. NYBG’s website also diagrams the plant’s life cycle, which helps account for why this blooming happens only once a decade: