Corpse Flower Stink Lures Swarms of Flies, Humans

Famous for its repulsive rotting-flesh stench and the largest flowering structure in the plant world, the corpse flower always causes something of a stir when it blooms.

The odor of decay it exudes attracts flies and other insects in the wild–the corpse flower’s strategy for pollination. But in botanical gardens the world over, the enormous phallic flower and gag-inducing stink seem to be a magnet for people eager to savor one of nature’s most bizarre spectacles.


Photo of corpse flower courtesy U.S. Botanical Garden

“The plants, which grow in the wild only in Indonesian rainforests, flowers on an unpredictable schedule and bloom for only a 24 to 48-hour period,” says a San Francisco State University media advisory about its corpse flower, which started blooming yesterday.


“The public is invited to view–and smell–SF State’s giant corpse flower this Sunday and Monday,” the advisory continues.

The corpse flower, or titan arum, is growing in the SF State’s new state-of-the-art greenhouse.

The 12-room facility houses cool humid, warm humid and arid plant collections and supports research in rainforest conservation, also drought resistance, native California plants and pollination biology–and also the lifecycle and morphology of Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the corpse flower.

Corpse flower getting ready to bloom picture courtesy SF State University

Corpse flowers are highly prized by botanical gardens and research institutions. In part this is because the corpse flower is endangered in the wild. But undoubtedly another reason is because so much about this plant is bizarre, from its enormous size to its horrible smell.

Another blooming of a corpse flower generating public attention today is half the world away from California, in Europe, at the Universiteit Leiden. It is the first blooming of a corpse flower in the Netherlands in more than a decade, according to media reports.

The university extended visiting hours to its greenhouse over the weekend to allow people to view and smell the blooming of its corpse flower, which it describes as “the elephant of the plant world.”


Corpse flower picture courtesy Universiteit Leiden

For those who can’t make it to see and smell the real thing, the blooming can at least be viewed on a webcam, linked from the university’s Web site.

At least 30 corpse flowers are believed to be in botanical collections across the world. 

Because it can be many years between the blooming of corpse flowers, it’s quite an occasion when they do, prompting media advisories and throngs of visitors who want what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and smell one of nature’s greatest oddities.

Corpse Flower Discovered in 1878

“Ever since this plant was first discovered in Sumatra, Indonesia in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Boccari, 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),” says the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, which showcased the blooming of “Trudy,” one of the corpse flowers in its collection, a few weeks ago..

Trudy was acquired by the botanical garden from a seed collected in Sumatra in 1995, the garden’s Web site explained. “It first bloomed here in July, 2005 (at age 12 years).”


Trudy the corpse flower, in bloom in 2005 at the UC Botanical Garden.
Corpse flower picture courtesy UC Botanical Garden 

Trudy’s tuber (swollen underground stem) must reach at least about 30 pounds before blooming, UC Botanical Garden said on its Web site, just as the corpse flower was getting ready to bloom in early June. “Trudy’s tuber now weighs 54 lbs and fills the pot, requiring constant watering and food.”

“It really does smell like there’s a dead body in the room.”

“It really does smell like there’s a dead body in the room,” Garden Director Paul Licht says of Trudy’s July 2005 bloom. “The odor helps the plant attract insects that carry its pollen to other titan arums, since corpse flowers can’t pollinate themselves.”

Trudy is said to have ”rested” for the four years between its 2005 and 2009 flowering, replenishing its tuberous stores.

Watch this University of California at Davis video about a corpse flower

Corpse flower video by UC Davis

Another remarkable attribute of the corpse flower is the speed which its spadex, the protuberance at the flower’s center, can grow when it is in bloom. This was illustrated when another of UC’s corpse flowers, Titania, grew at an astonishing pace prior to its blooming in 2005.


“Not until July 19 did Licht and his staff know their plant would be one of the rare titan arums that actually flowers,” according to a news statement released by UC Botanical Garden in 2005. ”On that day, Titania measured 36 ¾ inches. By Monday morning, July 30, her spadex—-had hit the 61-inch mark. The plant can grow up to 6 inches a day,” Licht noted in the release.

UC Botanical Garden’s Judith Finn uses a stepladder to pollinate Titania, on August 7, 2005. Titania was raised from seed in the garden starting in 1995.

Corpse flower picture courtesy UC Botanical Garden 

Related National Geographic News story:

Researchers Uncover Secrets of Gigantic “Corpse Flower”

Watch this BBC video of a corpse flower in the wild, in Sumatra:

Corpse flower video by BBC

Changing Planet

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn