Science Natural Science The Corpse Flower: Description, Life Cycle, Facts, and More A complete profile of the world's largest (and smelliest!) flower By Meghan Holmes Writer University of Mississippi University of Alabama Loyola University New Orleans Meghan Holmes is a freelance writer and documentarian based in New Orleans, who writes about the environment, science, food, sustainability, and more. our editorial process Twitter Twitter Meghan Holmes Updated January 27, 2021 Harold Cunningham / Getty Images Share Twitter Pinterest Email Science Space Natural Science Technology Agriculture Energy The corpse flower is a flowering plant known for having the biggest flower in the world, though it is actually the world's largest unbranched inflorescence — a group or cluster of flowers arranged on a stem. Also known as titan arum, the corpse flower's scientific name provides a literal description of the plant's inflorescences; Amorphophallus titanum translated from Ancient Greek means giant, misshapen, phallus. The plant's common name refers to the odor that emanates from the blooms, said to be reminiscent of rotting flesh. Corpse Flower Facts Scientific name: Amorphophallus titanum Also known as: Corpse flower, death flower, titan arum Description: Blooms average 6-8 feet tall with green exterior and deep red interior, and smell of rotting flesh. Leaves can reach 20 feet tall. Native range: Sumatra, Indonesia Conservation status: Endangered Interesting fact: These plants bloom very rarely, on average every 7-10 years. Description Native to the rainforests of Sumatra, the corpse flower belongs in a category of plants known for having carrion flowers, or blooms that smell like rotting animals, to attract scavengers as pollinators. A member of the Araceae family, this plant is related to several popular houseplants including philodendrons, calla lilies, and peace lilies, with all sharing a unique flower structure comprised of multiple elements that appear to be a single flower. (More details on flower structure below). Corpse flowers have a long life span, 30-40 years, and they bloom quite rarely, on average every 7-10 years. An Italian botanist named Odoardo Beccari collected seeds from the corpse flower while traveling through Sumatra in the late 1870s and shipped them to the Kew Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom, where the first titan arum bloomed outside of its native distribution in 1889. Eventually, the plant made its way to select botanical gardens in the United States, first blooming in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (NYBG) in 1937 (it was named the borough's official flower until the day lily replaced it in 2000). Three corpse flowers at different stages of blooming. U.S. Botanic Garden The plant continues to bloom in New York's botanical garden today (see time lapse video of 2019 corpse flower bloom at NYBG below), as well as at a small but growing number of larger botanical gardens around the world, where they are commonly planted and admired whenever they're in bloom, in spite of the noxious odor. The Corpse Flower Smell In a study published in 2010 in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry, researchers performed a gas analysis of chemical elements and compounds derived from the inflorescence of corpse flowers. The main odorant causing the smell during the flower-opening phase was identified as dimethyl trisulfide, a compound with a sulfury odor that is emitted from some vegetables, microorganisms, and cancerous wounds. Other chemicals include dimethyl disulfide, which strikes a garlic note; isovaleric acid, which contributes to the smell of sour sweat; and methyl thiolacetate, with an odor that blends garlic and cheese. In short, titan arum releases a potent smell that combines rotting wounds, garlic, cheese, and old sweat, to attract the flies and beetles necessary for its pollination. Fadil Aziz / Getty Images Parts of the Flower What appears to be the flower of a titan arum is actually a flowering structure, with both male and female flowers inside. Each sex matures at different times to avoid self-pollination. The parts of the flowering structure, in general, consist of the following: Spadix: The spadix is the spiky green structure in the middle of the corpse flower that contains individual flowers. Spathe: The spathe encases the spadix. When the corpse flower blooms, it opens and appears dark red. Flowers: Located at the base of the spadix in two distinct layers, the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to the plant's odor. Seeds: After flowering, the plant produces clusters of fruit that mature in 6-12 months, at which point they are (hopefully) eaten by birds in the wild and dispersed to become new plants. Male and female flowers of a corpse flower in bloom. U.S. Botanic Garden Life Cycle Another important part of the corpse flower, the corm plays a pivotal role in the plant's life cycle, as it absorbs and retains nutrients when the plant goes into a period of dormancy between leaves and blooms emerging. The corpse flower's corm, a rounded underground storage organ for plants that looks like a tuber, can weigh more than 110 pounds, and typically needs to weigh at least 35 pounds before the plant will bloom. U.S. Botanic Garden When planted from seed, leaf buds emerge first from the corm of the corpse flower and grow upwards reaching heights of 15 to 20 feet, and producing a leaf stalk and leaf blade. These leaves will die back annually, and the plant will be dormant between three and six months before a new leaf emerges. After a period 7 to 10 years the plant will reach maturity and, instead of a new leaf, it will produce a flower bud. Once the corpse flower reaches adulthood, it continues to produce flowers every 3 to 8 years on average in its native environment. Why Is the Corpse Flower So Rare? According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, there were only 41 documented bloomings of the corpse flower in cultivation prior to the year 2000. However, a growing awareness of the plant's disappearing native habitat, coupled with successes in pollen-sharing to increase seed production, as well as advances in raising the plant from cuttings, has led to at least a half a dozen blooms around the world each year. Nevertheless, seeing the plant's flowers remains incredibly rare, primarily because after waiting nearly a decade to emerge, the bloom withers and dies after 24 to 48 hours. When the New York Botanical Garden had a plant bloom in 2016, more than 25,000 people visited, smelling the bloom in person, and more than 16 million watched the plant from an online video feed. Those who flock to the plant don't only want to see it in person, with some swapping pollen from all over the world to set seed on their own plants, hoping to create cold-tolerant varieties and expand the plant's range, allowing it to live outdoors in the United States. Currently, corpse flowers are only grown by experts in botanical gardens and speciality nurseries outside of their native range, requiring copious amounts of fertilizer, a sunroom or conservatory with at least a 30-foot ceiling to produce flowers, and eventually weighing up to 300 pounds. In their native environment, timber harvesting and palm oil production increasingly threaten the corpse flower, as large portions of the forest they inhabit have disappeared. In addition, some Indigenous communities in the plant's native range believe titan arum to be a predator to people (due to the markings on the leaves’ stems that resemble a snake), and destroy the plant when they find it on their farmland. That said, the species is legally protected in Indonesia and botanists are working on ways to better pollinate and grow the plant to support its conservation. View Article Sources Shirasu, Mika, et al. “Chemical Identity of a Rotting Animal-like Odor Emitted from the Inflorescence of the Titan Arum(Amorphophallus Titanum).” Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, vol. 74, 2010, pp. 2550-2554., doi:10.1271/bbb.100692 “Corpse Flowers at U.S. Botanical Garden.” U.S. Botanical Garden. “Plant Profile: Corpse Flower.” Missouri Botanical Garden. “Amorphophallus Titanum (Titan Arum or Corpse Flower).” New York Botanical Garden. “Amazing Species: Titan Arum.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.