The legendary Sir David Attenborough first used the name titan arum to refer to this magnificent tropical plant in the BBC series The Private Lives of Plants because he felt viewers might be offended by the plant’s Latin name, Amorphophallus titanum. Titan arum might have suited Attenborough’s viewers, but the plant still seduces people with one of the world’s largest and rarest flowering structures and a reproduction method that beguiles insects with the illusion of decay in appearance, odor, and even temperature; hence the name “Corpse Flower.”
The “Corpse Flower” is not actually a single flower but an inflorescence (a stalk of many flowers). The flowers are a mixture of tiny male and female flowers held out of sight at the base of the central phallus-like structure (spadix) surrounded by a pleated skirt-like covering (spathe) that is bright green on the outside and deep maroon inside when opened. The female flowers mature before the male (pollen-producing) flowers which avoids self-pollination.
The plant typically requires at least 7 years before it blooms but it may take even longer. In the normal life cycle, the plant produces one single enormous branched leaf at a time that looks like a small tree reaching 10-15 feet. The leaf will go completely dormant after about 16 months while its underground tuber ‘rests’ for awhile. When it next sprouts, it will produce either another single leaf or an enormous bloom.
Titan arums have underground storage organs (corms) which alternate between producing massive solitary leaves and enormous inflorescences. The corm fluctuates in size during each growth phase. As energy is expended to generate a leaf (or inflorescence) the corm shrinks but as photosynthetic energy is stored, the corm enlarges. The latter process enables flowering and afterward, the corm will enter temporary dormancy.
The inflorescence bud may take months to form but the inflorescence remains open for only a day or two before collapsing. During this process, the spadix heats up to body temperature and produces the characteristic ‘corpse’ odor. This powerful scent attracts insect pollinators so is only produced at maturity, about a day before the collapse. If pollinated, the stalk grows into a large club-like head of scarlet seeds.
Ever since this plant was first identified in Sumatra, Indonesia in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, it has excited worldwide attention due to its massive size, fascinating appearance, and habit of producing a foul odor resembling rotten flesh (to attract insects that pollinate it). During this process, the ‘flower-spadix’ actually heats up to human body temperature. UC Berkeley physicists experimented with an atomic magnetometer to measure possible biomagnetism of Trudy’s flower stalk in 2009. Further information on this topic can be found HERE.