What a stinker! Meet the corpse flower


The corpse flower is so-called because it’s a stinker. On Friday August 28 2015, Katy Plantenberg, a spokeswoman for Denver Botanical Gardens, announced that its resident corpse flower was blooming. Cloudy weather had delayed this – in the plant’s native Sumatra, there are never five days of cloudy weather. It had been realised that the event was imminent when the plant’s leaves unfurled. Corpse flowers bloom only once every eight to 10 years, with the last occasion in Denver being 2009.

Corpse flowers are odious only when they bloom. Then, they can be smelt as much as an acre away – definitely a stinker. Denver’s corpse flower acquired the nickname of Spike, although it possesses both male and female parts. Floriculturist, Tim Pollak, has been in charge of Spike’s care for 12 years, which he jokingly contrasted to most people who struggle to keep a house plant alive for 12 months. He likened himself and his colleagues to first-time parents awaiting the birth of a child.

This is most assuredly a stinker. Pollak described Spike’s stench as “the smell of death, mixed in with some mothball, the smell of skunk, all of those things mixed together.” According to spokeswoman, Erin Bird, it was like “a dirty diaper, spoiled milk and a mouldy aquarium.” Paul Licht, director of the University of California’s Botanical Garden, felt “It’s clearly, to me, the odour of a dead mammal, as opposed to a fish. Or maybe a dead rat. A big dead rat. Or a dead cow.” One visitor remarked that it was “like Indianapolis in the summertime.” On hand were barf bags displaying fun facts regarding the corpse flower. A more scientific appraisal was provided by Todd Brethauer of the United States Botanic Garden: present are dimethyl trisfulfide, smelling of rotting onions or cabbage; trimethylamine, aka rotting fish; and isovaleric acid, which is like old sweat socks.

As Pollak explained, the corpse flower is a stinker that attracts dung beetles, flesh flies and other insects that would feed on a dead animal, and these beasties pick up pollen. The burgundy colouration of the flower also resembles dead flesh. Pollak was dead chuffed because for many of the people in the world of botany, this is a bucket list item – “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Blooming lasts for no more than 48 hours, so the Botanical Garden remained open until 0200.

Licht made clear why people would wish to pay a stinker like Spike a visit – “People go to horror movies to be scared, right? Well they go to see this flower to be made nauseous.” Nick Snakenberg, Denver Botanic Gardens’ curator of tropical plants, termed this “sensory overload in a safe environment – a shock to the system.”

Spike achieved what Chicago Tonight called “near-rock star status.” Almost 40,000 people have come for a look, which is not at all bad for a stinker. Thousands of people signed up to an email alert that would inform them that Spike was flowering. Spike even starred in a 24-hour live stream broadcast. One onlooker, Peggy Nitzken, had exclaimed, “I came yesterday, I came today, I’ll come tomorrow to see it unravel.” Another of Spike’s ilk, in Melbourne, aroused similar excitement.

Spike has taken 15 years to mature. Corpse flowers can be as tall as 10 feet. Spike is five feet eight inches tall and was growing by around five or five inches a day at its peak. This, one of the world’s oldest and largest plant species, is rare and so is data on it.

The scientific name of the corpse flower is Amorphophallus titanium, meaning “misshapen giant penis.” This is on account of the spadix, a greyish-yellow, protruding fleshy thing that is the plant’s central column. Other than while blooming, it is encased by a skirt known as a spathe.

Deforestation has placed the corpse flower in danger, with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifying it as “vulnerable,” one step away from “endangered.” The Denver Botanical Gardens’ Snakenberg pointed out: “I think having plants like the Amorphophallus titanum species in our collection is a real strong tool to excite people about plants, and when we get excited about plants and about animals, we get excited about conserving them in the wild and protecting their environments. And when we protect the megaflora and the megafauna, just by default, we’re protecting everything else that lives in those environments.”

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”