UW News

May 8, 2001

Smell like rotting animal flesh fills UW botany greenhouse

News and Information

Sunshine and May rains are bringing forth the earthy fragrance of field and flower to give everyone a touch of spring fever. Meanwhile University of Washington botanists have coaxed a corpse flower to begin blooming, which will fill the air with a very different “fragrance” — one that drives flies, carrion beetles, sweat bees and their brethren wild.

An Amorphophallus titanum, also known as a corpse flower in its native Sumatra and elsewhere because of its foul odor, begun blooming Monday afternoon in the greenhouse operated by the University of Washington’s Department of Botany. This is the second corpse flower to bloom at the UW. The first, in the summer of 1999, was only the 10th such bloom ever in the United States and the first west of St. Louis. Altogether fewer than 20 have flowered in the United States, UW botanists say.

The blossom, as has happened at a few other places, may topple over in its first day but could last up to four days. To find out later this week if the corpse flower is still blooming, call the greenhouse at (206) 543-0436. The UW’s botany greenhouse is next to Kincaid Hall along Stevens Way, the road through main campus. There is no public parking in that area. Visitors will need to check for parking in the underground Central Plaza Parking Garage off Fifteenth Avenue Northeast, the South Campus Parking Garage behind the Health Sciences Center or the West Campus Parking Garage at Northeast Pacific and University Way.

Hours are weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are asked to come to the greenhouse entrance closest to Kincaid Hall. After hours, visitors can still glimpse the corpse flower through the windows at the southeast end of the greenhouse (farthest from Kincaid).

The corpse flower bloom has been cultivated by Doug Ewing, UW greenhouse manager, and Paul Beeman and Jeanette Milne, greenhouse plant technicians.


Additional facts:

— Amorphophallus titanum is also known as Titan Arum, corpse flower or Devil’s Tongue.

— The plant is native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

— Fewer than 20 have flowered in the United States, according to UW botanists.

— This is the second corpse flower to bloom in the UW botany greenhouse. The first, in the summer of 1999, was only the 10th such bloom ever in the United States and the first west of St. Louis.

— The corpse flowers blooming at the UW were each grown from seed and nurtured in the greenhouse for more than six years, just one example of how difficult they are to cultivate.

— The foul aroma lasts only a day or two, attracting a variety of insects — primarily carrion beetles in its native habitat — that pollinate the plant. The blossom can last two to four days.

— The “blossom” is more properly called a compound flower, or an inflorescence, because it consists of many flowers. Individual flowers are grouped around the base of the spadix, the tubular structure rising out of the center of the plant. Unfolding around the spadix like a cup is the maroon-tinged spathe.

— During blooming the mitochondria that power cell growth in the spadix change function and, instead of starches being used to grow plant material, those starches create heat that triggers what the UW botanists term “exquisitely smelly oils.”

— There are more than 170 species similar to the Amorphophallus titanum, and many have distinctive odor and heating properties.

— The UW plant is about five and half feet tall, and could grow taller while it blooms. The tallest ever recorded was more than 10 feet.

— The goal of botanical gardens and university greenhouses is to study Amorphophallus titanum in cultivated settings because they are becoming scarce in the wild. The plants have been heavily harvested for food and medicine and, because of their phallic appearance, also are valued by some as aphrodisiacs or cures for impotence. For researchers and students from the UW and elsewhere, this is a chance to learn about the diversity in the plant kingdom.

Reporters wanting information:
Doug Ewing, greenhouse manager, or Paul Beeman, 206-543-0436