Corpse Flower: Facts About the Smelly Plant
The "corpse flower" named Trudy bloomed on July 25, 2015.
Credit: UC Berkeley photo by Avi Martin

One of the world's largest and rarest flowering structures, the corpse flower is a pungent plant that blooms rarely and only for a short time. While it is in bloom, the flower emits a strong odor similar to rotting meat or, aptly, a decaying corpse.

There is a good reason for the plant's strong odor. "It all comes down to science," said Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "The smell, color and even temperature of corpse flowers are meant to attract pollinators and help ensure the continuation of the species."

Pollak explained that dung beetles, flesh flies and other carnivorous insects are the primary pollinators of this type of flower. These insects typically eat dead flesh. The smell and the dark burgundy color of the corpse flower are meant to imitate a dead animal to attract these insects.

"Corpse flowers are also able to warm up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.7 Celsius) to further fool the insects," Pollak told Live Science. "The insects think the flower may be food, fly inside, realize there is nothing to eat, and fly off with pollen on their legs. This process ensures the ongoing pollination of the species. Once the flower has bloomed and pollination is complete, the flower collapses."

Pollak wrote on the Chicago Botanic Garden's blog that analyses show that chemically the stench consists of:

  • dimethyl trisulfide (also emitted by cooked onions and limburger cheese)
  • dimethyl disulfide (which has an odor like garlic)
  • trimethylamine (found in rotting fish or ammonia)
  • isovaleric acid (which also causes sweaty socks to stink)
  • benzyl alcohol (a sweet floral scent found in jasmine and hyacinth)
  • phenol (sweet and medicinal, as in Chloraseptic throat spray)
  • indole (like mothballs)

The corpse flower is what is called an inflorescence — a stalk with many flowers, according to the University of California Botanical Garden. A mixture of tiny male and female flowers grow at the base of the spadix, the central phallus-like structure, which is surrounded by the spathe, a pleated skirt-like covering that is bright green on the outside and deep maroon inside when opened. If pollinated, the spadix grows into a large club-like head of orange-red seeds.

Live Science Reference Editor Tim Sharp reacts to his encounter with a corpse flower at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2010.
Live Science Reference Editor Tim Sharp reacts to his encounter with a corpse flower at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2010.
Credit: Photo courtesy Tim Sharp

The plant itself grows to around 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters). The plants typically can grow to a massive 8 feet (2.4 m) tall and the leaves can be as big as 13 feet (4 m) wide. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest bloom was a corpse flower that measured 10 feet 2.25 inches (3.1 m) tall. It bloomed on June 18, 2010, at Winnipesaukee Orchids in Gilford, New Hampshire.

The scientific name of the corpse flower is Amorphophallus titanum. According to Gustavus Adolphus College, the name is from the Latin words amorphos (without form, misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant).

The corpse plant is also known as the titan arum, said Ross Koning, a professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). According to the UC Botanical Garden, British naturist and television producer David Attenborough first used the name titan arum in the BBC series "The Private Lives of Plants" because he thought viewers might be offended by the plant's Latin name. The corpse flower is in the Aroid subfamily of flowering plants. Relatives include the common duckweed, skunk cabbage, calla lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit. 

ECSU has two genotypes (genetically different individuals) of corpse flower. "Our genotype known locally as Rhea has bloomed many times since 2008," said Koning. "Rhea has larger inflorescence parts and a much stronger scent than our other genotype, known locally as Hyperion."

According to the Eden Project, corpse flowers can take up to seven years to bloom; some corpse flowers only bloom once every few decades. The plant's energy is stored in the corm – a swollen stem base typically weighing around 100 lbs. (45 kilograms). The corpse plant has the world's largest known corm, sometimes weighing up to 220 lbs. (100kg). During the non-flowering years, a single leaf, the size of a small tree, shoots up from the corm. This leaf branches out into three sections with each of these sprouting more leaflets. Each year, this shooting leaf dies and a new one grows in its place. After many years, the plant finally gathers enough energy to bloom, and once it does, it can only hold the bloom for 24 to 36 hours before it collapses.

Because the flower stays open and emits its odor for just a few days, it can be quite an exciting event for scientists and botany enthusiasts. These bloomings garner media coverage and large crowds of visitors. A 2014 blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens was watched from all around the world due to a live feed posted on the garden's website. In August 2016, some 20,000 people lined up to see a blooming corpse flower at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Once the blooming begins, it occurs in two stages on consecutive nights: essentially a "female" stage and a "male" stage. The female flowers form a ring at the bottom of the spadix (inner tube structure), and the male flowers form a ring around the spadix just above the female flowers. 

During the first stage, carrion beetles drawn by the stench of death and human-like body temperatures, creep inside the vase-like structure and unknowingly deposit pollen on the receptive female flowers. During the second stage, the structure begins to collapse, the "fragrance" fades and the insects begin to head out. As they leave, the beetles rub up against the pollen in the male flowers and are now ready to carry the pollen to a nearby female flower.

The corpse flower was first discovered in Sumatra in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, according to the UC Botanical Garden. The plant grows in the wild only in tropical regions of Asia. 

The corpse flower is classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Plants. The flower could become endangered, however, if the factors threatening its survival and reproduction do not improve. Its main threat is habitat loss and destruction. As of now, the Sumatran rainforests are under major threat of deforestation as huge areas are logged for timber to clear space for palm plantations. In fact, it is estimated that around 72 percent of the original rainforests in Indonesia have been cleared out and the scale of deforestation continues at an alarming rate.

Additional reporting by Traci Pedersen, Live Science contributor.