Fairy lanterns and corpse flowers: 6 flummoxing flower facts

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Who doesn’t love a good flowering plant?  But flowers aren’t all delicate and fragrant: they can smell like rotting corpses, parasitically invade tree systems, and even land a few nasty chemicals in your mother’s house.

Here are the six most popular flower stories of 2023.

Fairy lantern cropped 850
Thismia kobensis (A) and its stamens (B).

1. Species of ethereal fairy lantern rediscovered in Japan after being presumed extinct for 30 years

Scientists have “rediscovered” a species in the genus of the strange and unearthly flowers called Thismia, commonly known as fairy lanterns, which have  abandoned green leaves and photosynthesis.

They live entirely underground – except when their lantern-like flowers rise above the soil during the wet season – and are sometimes mistaken for mushrooms.

One species of these unusual and elusive flowers, Thismia kobensis, was originally discovered from a single specimen in Kobe City, Japan, in 1992. But, when scientists failed to find another and its habitat was destroyed during the construction of an industrial complex, it was subsequently presumed extinct.

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

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

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.

Early this year at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, a Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium), nearly 10 years old, showed 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 succeeding, providing new hope for the endangered species.

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3. World’s largest flowers are facing extinction

And now for another type of corpse flower. Most plants in the Rafflesia genus – which have the largest known flowers in the world – are under threat of extinction, according to an international team of botanists.

Native to Southeast Asia, Rafflesia plants have life cycles so bizarre that botanic gardens like the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, struggle to cultivate them.

The plants spend most of their time as invasive thread-like filaments, parasitising jungle vines. Then, when it’s time to pollinate, they burst out of vine bark in massive flowers, up to a metre in size.

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Person in jungle with giant flower
Chris Thorogood with Rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world, in Sumatra. Credit: Chris Thorogood.

4. Florists and growers say buy local blooms for Mother’s Day to avoid giving mum a chemical surprise

Consider this a warning ahead of next Mother’s Day.

Australian florists and flower growers are encouraging consumers to choose locally grown blooms to avoid the chemicals associated with imports.

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5. Bamboo about to flower and die for first time in 120 years

Bamboo flowering
The flowering bamboo. Credit: Toshihiro Yamada, Hiroshima University

A species of bamboo found all over Japan – Phyllostachys nigra var. henonis – is about to flower for the first time in 120 years, and then die.

The flowering event, expected in 2028, could have wide ramifications for the country’s ecology and economy.

But researchers don’t know exactly how the plant regenerates – or what’s going to happen in 5 years’ time.

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6. Cherry blossom blooms – and the seasons they follow – can be tracked with social media

Animated gif showing pink dots representing cherry blossom blooms on map of japan, blooms start in the south and move north from january to may
Cherry blossom blooms in Japan, according to the research. Credit: Supplied by Monash University

Ever posted a picture of a tree in full bloom to social media? It could be a crucial source of data on pollination.

A team of Australian researchers has found that images of cherry blossom flowers posted to social media can accurately track the Japanese blooming season.

This makes these photos a treasure trove of information on blooming seasons, and how they’re changing with global warming.

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Cherry blossoms on flowering trees in park
Cherry blossoms in Osaka Prefecture, Japan. Credit: onosan / Getty Images

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