Visitors to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) were in for an incredibly rare treat in June, when its resident corpse flower burst into bloom. And for those of us who couldn’t get there, the garden staff recorded the event in a spectacular timelapse.
The corpse flower or titan arum – Amorphophallus titanum (a name which means “giant deformed penis” of all things) – is famed for its enormous, incredibly pungent blossom, and for the rarity of its appearance.
Native to the rainforests of western Sumatra and western Java, the corpse flower is related to peace lilies and calla lilies; it blooms, on average, only around once every six years. In 2015, one corpse flower in a UK botanic garden bloomed for the first time in 12 years.
However, it can take a much shorter time. The last time NYBG’ flower blossomed was in 2016, among a spate of similar and inexplicable corpse flower bloomings in botanical gardens all across the US.
Once the corpse flower blooms, it lasts only 48 hours before closing again.
When it opens, the plant reveals a long fleshy stem called a spadix. This is where the flowers are – tiny and clustered all over its surface. The deep red frilled “skirt” that surrounds it, looking like a petal, is actually a spathe – a type of modified leaf that looks like a petal to help attract pollinators.
This entire structure can reach up to 3 metres (10 feet) high. And boy is it stinky. The reason we call it a corpse flower is because it’s one of those plants that produces an odour like a decomposing carcass to attract the flies and beetles that typically feed on rotting flesh.
These crawl all over the flower and end up doing the job of pollination.
While NYBG’s corpse flower probably didn’t get a lot of pollinators, it doesn’t mean its tremendous effort was in vain. Botanists are now harvesting the pollen to share with other botanical gardens to pollinate their own corpse flower plants.
As to when the flower will bloom again, that’s anyone’s guess. Anywhere between 2 and 12 years?