This is an archived article.

July 7, 1999

Stench of “corpse flower” fills UW botany greenhouse as blooming begins

News and Information

The stench of dead and bloated flesh drifted through the University of Washington botany greenhouse this afternoon as an unusual plant called an Amorphophallus titanum began to bloom.

The plant, also known as Devil’s Tongue or Titan Arum, began blooming about 3 p.m. The inflorescence, or compound flower, should last two to four days, though the acrid smell should dissipate after a few hours, said Douglas Ewing, manager of the UW greenhouse.

“I love it,” he said of the odor, “because this is what it’s supposed to do. It means it’s doing what’s natural and I hope it continues to escalate and just drives us out of here.”

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where the plant is native, it is referred to as a “corpse flower” because its odor strongly resembles that of rotting flesh. The combination of the stench and heat generated by the plant attracts insects – primarily carrion beetles – that are crucial to pollination.

The A. titanum grew rapidly before blooming, with the large central structure called a spadix expanding from 4 feet, 8 inches a week ago to more than 6 feet when blooming began. As the leafy spathe began to open, its deep red color was apparent. For Ewing, who started the plant from seed six years ago and has spent much of the last week monitoring its progress, the start of blooming was a special moment.

“It feels so much like when my two boys were born. It’s just unreal,” he said.

This marks the tenth documented instance this century that one of the exotic plants has flowered in the United States, and the first time west of St. Louis. Two A. titanums bloomed in May at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., and plants bloomed last year in St. Louis, Miami and Atlanta.

There are more than 170 species similar to the A. titanum, and many have distinct odor and heating properties, Ewing said. He is using an infrared camera to study the powerful heating of the plant’s spadix by internal chemical reactions. That process, called thermogenesis, generates the odor that attracts the insects.

He said the goal of botanists is to establish the plants in cultivation because they are becoming scarce in the wild. The plants have been heavily harvested for food and medicine and, because of their phallic appearance, are valued by some as aphrodisiacs or cures for impotence.

In the wild, the plant can bloom every two to three years, but it is uncertain whether the UW plant will ever bloom again, Ewing said. There is no recorded instance of that ever happening with an A. titanum outside its natural habitat.

“This facility allows us to show students plants that, at some institutions, they can only see in pictures or read about,” he said.

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For more information, contact Ewing at (206) 543-0436 or dewing@u.washington.edu