Corpse flower bursts into bloom – and with it, the opportunity to save the species

The foul-smelling corpse flower only blooms for a couple of days every few years, so propagating and ensuring its survival is a delicate struggle.

Today at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, a Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium), nearly 10 years old, is showing off its first ever bloom. But it’s particularly exciting because it’s the first “second generation” corpse flower at the Gardens to do it.

This means that the Botanic Gardens’ efforts to propagate corpse flowers in-house are working, providing new hope for the endangered species.

Corpse flowers are native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, but it’s estimated that fewer than 1,000 mature plants are left in the wild.

Titan arum corpse flower plant inside greenhouse
The blooming second-generation corpse flower is currently on display at the Adelaide Botanic Garden’s Bicentennial Conservatory. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, wild numbers are still in decline.

But at Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens, staff have spent the last nine years tending to 100 propagated plants in a specially-designed glasshouse.

These plants were all propagated in 2013 from three plants, which the Gardens grew from seeds in 2006.

Large pots containg spikes of corpse flower leafs and large seeds
A Titan Arum seed, and propagated Titan Arum leaf growths. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

While the three 16-year-old plants have bloomed in recent years, the current specimen, which has been moved to Adelaide Botanic Garden for public viewing, is the first of the 2013 generation to bloom.

2m high titan arum leaf, resembling a small green tree
While tree-like, this growth is actually one single Titan Arum leaf. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

The plants spend most years sending up growths that look like small green trees. Each “tree” is actually a single leaf, absorbing as much sunlight as possible for the plant’s run at pollination.

Every three to five years, the plants send up a huge yellow spathe: a leaf bud with a stem inside it. This spathe grows quickly – up to 18 centimetres a day – for a week or so, until it’s a metre or two high.

Then, it opens up, revealing a yellow spadix: a fleshy stem, covered with lots of tiny flowers (an inflorescence).

The bloom is accompanied by a smell that’s somewhere between rotting meat and garbage. This smell, which the plant sends out in waves, is designed to attract as many flies and insects as possible.

This is so the plants can pollinate: in the wild, one plant flowering a night before a second plant means that insects will travel between the two, swapping pollen.

Read about a previous bloom: Corpse flower puts on a display in Melbourne

The flower has only one night to attract its insects: within 48 hours, the spadix collapses and the plant begins preparing for its next bloom.

The Botanic Gardens of South Australia now see a Titan Arum bloom nearly every summer. The last time they put a flower on display for the public to visit was four years ago: in recent years, COVID restrictions have made it hard to allow crowds through their greenhouses.

And crowds of people do want to visit: on Sunday alone, over 2,000 people queued at the Adelaide Botanic Garden to see – and smell – the corpse flower.

Crowd of people lining up to see corpse flower
Wait times in the queue to see the corpse flower went over an hour. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

Now in its final stages of blooming, the spadix is expected to collapse later today, or on Tuesday.

But there will be other blooms in coming years. Matt Coulter, Botanic Garden and State Herbarium curator, says he’s hoping they’ll get two blooming close enough together that they can pollinate naturally.

“To get that natural pollination, you need a day one flower and a day two flower, and for the pollinators to come from the day one flower to the day two flower,” he says.

“That’s never happened in cultivation before, so that’s one of my great aims.”

Corpse flower, titan arum, inside greenhouse
The corpse flower in bloom: note the large yellow spadix. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

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