Death Becomes the Corpse Plant

Who knew the smell of rotting flesh could be so alluring?

The corpse plant, which gets its name from the scent it releases upon opening, is set to bloom this week. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) The corpse plant, which gets its name from the scent it releases upon opening, is set to bloom this week. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

As morbid as it may seem, the corpse plant secretes a scent not unlike that of a decaying corpse in order to set the mood.

Yep. That stench helps it reproduce.

“In its native habitat of Sumatra, the pollinators are flies and carrion beetles—beetles that like to eat flesh,” says Alan Chryst ’93, greenhouse manager at Rollins. “That is why, number one, it has a very stinky smell like rotting flesh, and number two, this is why [the flower] is colored the way it is—like raw, exposed, rotting meat.” (How’s that for imagery?)

The strong odor is where the plant, which is also known as the Amorphophallus titanum, gets its nickname. And soon, people in the area will have the opportunity to take a whiff of it, if they so desire: One of the corpse plants in the greenhouse on campus has started to bloom, and should open—releasing its mating scent of decay—sometime later this week. (You can check on its status regularly, sans smell-o-vision, at rollins.edu/greenhouse.)

This is the first corpse plant that’s bloomed at Rollins College, and one of only a handful in Central Florida. Disney has had one or two bloom, says Chryst, who volunteers at the Flower & Garden Festival, but they died after they bloomed.

“They use up so much energy to produce this flower, that they sometimes exhaust themselves,” he says.

Mr. Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! first saw a corpse plant in Java in 1932—and published a drawing on February 19, 1933. (Image © 2015 Ripley Entertainment Inc.) Mr. Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! first saw a corpse plant in Java in 1932—and published a drawing on February 19, 1933. (Image © 2015 Ripley Entertainment Inc.)

That’s not so uncommon in the plant world. “When plants are in decline, when they’re dying, the last thing they do is put out blooms to help propagate the species.” And all plants exert energy to bloom.

What is unusual is how much energy this particular plant expends. The one that’s about to bloom here, for example, was only a few inches tall at the beginning of last month. And in the span of a little over 40 days, it will have reached anywhere from 6 to 8 feet in height. (The tallest one on record that bloomed in a greenhouse was 10 feet; in the wild, they can grow up to 20.)

And this will be the first time—but hopefully not the last—that this plant has bloomed since it took root 11 years ago.

A photo of Greenhouse Manager Alan Chryst ’93 from 2013 shows him standing next to the corpse plant that is currently about to bloom. (Photo by Scott Cook) A photo of Greenhouse Manager Alan Chryst ’93 from 2013 shows him standing next to the corpse plant that is currently about to bloom. (Photo by Scott Cook)

“Each year, it goes through the same cycle. It dies; it comes back. But each time it comes back, it’s bigger and bigger and bigger, until you get to this [where we are now]. What it’s doing is storing enough energy to produce this massive flower, which only last 36 hours” Chryst says.

The whole process—from seed to flower—can take anywhere from 10 to 12 years, and will vary for each plant. For example, there’s another corpse plant in the greenhouse that’s the same age, but hasn’t reached the flower cycle (it still looks more like a small tree). When I ask Chryst why one has matured faster than the other, he replies, “It’s just like nature. Why does one child grow to be 6 feet and the other grows to be 5’5”? It’s just genetics.”

<em>Amorphophallus titanum</em> is Latin for giant misshapen penis. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Amorphophallus titanum is Latin for giant misshapen penis. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) But let’s talk more about sex. For those who are really interested in the reproductive organs of plants, the corpse plant has both, and they ripen at different times during the blooming process. Amorphophallus titanum is Latin for giant misshapen penis, and gets its name from the plant’s purplish-whitish staff, which is indeed a little twisted looking. In fact, it looks like something created specifically for a Tim Burton film. That, clearly, is the male part and produces pollen. The female part is inside the bloom, and it’s responsible for the corpse-like odor.

There’s typically an hour window from midnight to 1 a.m. when the flower has recently opened and it’s most receptive to being pollinated (and when the scent is the strongest). When that happens, Chryst, along with Rollins biology professors Paul Stephenson and Eric Engstrom, are going to attempt to pollinate the flower with pollen they received from another plant. 

When I compare the corpse plant to the panda of the mammal world, in that mating doesn’t happen very often and there seems to be a big to-do when it does, Chryst pauses then says, “I’ve never thought about it like that, but yes, you can.”

All in all, it’s all a lot of work, energy, and funkiness in the hopes of breeding the next generation of little corpse plants. And, all creepiness aside, you’re invited to watch the magic happen.

The greenhouse is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Amorphophallus plants at different stages. The two on the bottom left and center are about 1.5 years of age; the one on the right is a different species than the titanum but illustrates the tree stage. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Amorphophallus plants at different stages. The two on the bottom left and center are about 1.5 years of age; the one on the right is a different species than the titanum but illustrates the tree stage. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Chryst gives a tour of the greenhouse to visitors who stopped by to see the corpse plant. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Chryst gives a tour of the greenhouse to visitors who stopped by to see the corpse plant. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Up close, the leaf that will become a large petal looks not unlike pleated chiffon. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Up close, the leaf that will become a large petal looks not unlike pleated chiffon. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Chryst gives a tour of the greenhouse to visitors who stopped by to see the corpse plant. The poster in the background shows the different stages of the plant's lifecycle. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Chryst gives a tour of the greenhouse to visitors who stopped by to see the corpse plant. The poster in the background shows the different stages of the plant's lifecycle. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)