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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The coming of the corpse flower

The Titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, in full bloom. (UC DAVIS BOTANICAL CONSERVATORY / COURTESY)
The Titan arum, also known as the corpse flower, in full bloom. (UC DAVIS BOTANICAL CONSERVATORY / COURTESY)

UC Davis Botanical Conservatory curator, nursery technician, volunteer discuss Corpse flowers’ expected blooming.

UC Davis’ Botanical Conservatory is home to a vast variety of plants. Among them is the Amorphophallus Titanum (Titan Arum), more commonly known as the “corpse flower.”

Native to Indonesia, the corpse flower first bloomed in cultivation 137 years ago.

“In 1878, an Italian botanist collected the seed from Sumatra and gave it to the [Royal Botanic Gardens] at Kew in London,” said Eva Bayon, former assistant curator at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory.  “That was the first ever bloom in cultivation.”

The conservatory’s first corpse flower bloomed in 2003. It can take years for a corpse flower to bloom, and is a rare sight in cultivation.

“[The corpse flower is a] gigantic species — [it is] only found in the rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia,” said Barry Rice, a botanist with the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity and volunteer at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. “Any plant that has a local population like that is considered a vulnerable plant — that’s what its conservation status is. That puts it in the threatened category because of its small range.”

The conservatory receives corpse flower seeds from private collectors and other universities. Private collector and physician James R. Symon donated the botanical conservatory’s first batch of corpse flower seeds to UC Davis in 1995. From this batch, the botanical conservatory’s most successful bloomer, named Ted the Titan, came to exist.

“[James R. Symon] knew that we had a pretty good botanical collection and heard that we’d probably want them for teaching purposes, and he just delivered a handful of seeds one day back in 1995,” said Ernesto Sandoval, manager and curator of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. “Ted is our most consistent bloomer — that’s the one that bloomed in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011.”

The corpse flower can grow to tremendous heights, but the largest one at UC Davis grew to about five feet. Once bloomed, the flower stays open for about two days.

The flower attracts pollinators by imitating rotting meat with its color and smell, hence the name “corpse flower.” The reddish-purple petals of the corpse flower encase a spathe and spadix. Male and female flowers exist at the base of the spadix, which emits an extremely rotten odor to attract pollinators. At the same time, the spathe heats up to about body temperature to disperse the odor.

“You walk into the greenhouse and you see this plant and you feel like you’re on the set of a movie. [The flower] looks like something that can’t possibly exist for real,” Rice said. “The smell, which is strongest on the first day, is so bad — when you smell it, [you] recoil. Everyone is shocked by how bad [the smell] is. I’ve only seen one person who wasn’t shocked at how bad the smell was, and that was a person who worked in a forensic morgue.”

Despite its size — which can reach to heights upwards of ten feet — and colorful exterior, the corpse flower is situated with the all other flowers in the conservatory.

“It’s actually pretty easy [to take care of],” said Marlene Simon, nursery technician of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. “We just have to make sure it’s not touched in its peak growth phase or watered when it’s dormant. Other than that, it’s pretty low maintenance.”

Although it is impossible to know for sure, two of the botanical conservatory’s adult corpse flowers are predicted to bloom in 2016, according to Sandoval.

Written by: Fatima Siddiqui – features@theaggie.org

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