Q. What is the corpse flower?
Many plants in the genus Amorphophallus (family Araceae) are known as corpse flowers or carrion flowers. The name corpse or carrion flower is derived from the flower's intensely foul smell that resembles rotting meat. Amorphophallus titanum, or titan arum, has one of the largest flowering structures in the world. The inflorescence can reach 10 feet in height and occurs only rarely in cultivation. The plant grows on limestone hillsides in the rainforests of Sumatra. While it is A. titanum that is often featured and pictured in newspaper stories, more commonly found in gardens is A. rivieri (smaller but unique).
The strong smell of the rare and unpredictable flowering structure is a component of Amorphophallus's reproductive strategy. The plant's inflorescence consists of a spathe, similar to the wrapped outer structure of a jack-in-the-pulpit or a calla lily, surrounding a flower-bearing spike called the spadix. The A. titanum spathe is green and furrowed on the outside with a deep burgundy interior. The flowering structure lasts for only two days, warming to body temperature as it prepares for pollination to further diseminate its strong odor. The deep burgundy red color and rotting smell contribute to the impression of a piece of meat, attracting flesh-eating beetles and flies to the plant's rings of male and female flowers hidden deep within the spadix. Interestingly, the male and female flowers are asynchronous to deter self-pollination, which makes pollination in cultivation difficult and unusual.
If sucessful pollination occurs, fruit develops and the spathe withers, exposing bright, red fruit which would be eaten by the birds that spread the corpse flower's seed in the wild. The flowering structure quickly dies, and a single leaf grows up to the size of a small tree, lasting for up to several years. A dying leaf is replaced by another single leaf, collecting energy to be stored in the plant's tuberous root. A new inflorescence may appear after a period of dormancy lasting several months.
Restricted in the wild to tropical Asia and Africa, Amorphophallus comprises about 100 deciduous, mostly tuberous, herbaceous perennials. Often the tubers are large, sometimes immense. Amorphophallus rivieri (the smaller but striking one) usually grows a single leaf with an upright stalk and a spreading blade. The flowers emerge when the plant is leafless. In all the Amorphallus, what is commonly called the “flower” is in fact an inflorescence, a combination of many small flowers and attendant parts, similar to jack-in-the pulpit and calla lily (Arum family). These plants are usually grown as curiosities. Striking in appearance, they are highly ornamental.
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- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service