Home > Science and Technology, Weekend Feature, Weird and Interesting > The Titan Arum: a rare, slow-blooming and stinky flower

The Titan Arum: a rare, slow-blooming and stinky flower

Titan Arum Flower

A rare bloom of the Titan Arum flower

The titan arum flower (amorphallus titanum in Latin, or just ‘corpse flower’ if you’re feeling dramatic), sounds like a hack writer’s attempt at science fiction: it’s a massive red flower that can reach 3 meters in height, but it blooms only once every decade, and when it does, it reeks like rotting meat. Because it’s so large, and because it blooms so rarely, it’s become an object of pride for botanical gardens around the world. Every time a titan arum blooms it’s a big to-do in the news, and people flock to see it in its too-short three-day floral stage. Check out this time lapse video of the one that bloomed at Cornell University in March of this year.

For a big, pitcher-shaped flower that looks and smells like roadkill, you’d think it’d be carnivorous. But the titan arum isn’t attracting carrion bugs for food. It uses them instead to pollinate itself. Where most flowers use a sweet scent to attract honey bees, the titan arum uses the stench of death to attract beetles and flies. It even heats its spadix – the pollen-covered shaft in the middle of the pitcher – to human body temperature to simulate a fresh corpse.

Speaking of the spadix, the plant only got the name ‘titan arum’ because BBC documentarian David Attenborough felt awkward repeatedly calling it by its Latin amorphallus titanum, which translates to “giant misshapen penis.”

The blooming titan arum may look like a freakishly large lily, but technically, it’s not even a single flower. A titan arum doesn’t have a flowering, it has an inflorescence. What looks like one big flower is actually countless tiny flowers blooming all at once. When all those flowers are successfully pollinated the petal-like skirt around the spadex closes up and drops off, exposing the spadex covered in fruit.

The titan arum’s dormant period makes it look like a small tree. It grows from a 100 lb round pod in the ground and sends up a single chute with an umbrella of leaves on top. The tree-like chute sheds the leaves every year and regrows them until it is ready to reproduce.

The titan arum hails from the tropical rainforest of western Sumatra, Indonesia, but the first human cultivation of it dates back to 1889 in London, England. Since that first inflorescence, over 100 titan arums have been brought up in various botanical gardens across the globe.

If you see a flowering advertised in your area, check it out. They’re extremely rare, and while you can YouTube it for a look, an in-person sniff test is worth the story you’ll tell afterward.

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