Amorphophallus titanum, known as corpse flower or titan arum, is native to the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia. It is celebrated for its enormous, malodorous flower spike—the largest unbranched inflorescence in the Plant Kingdom. In this bizarre flower tower, rings of male and female flowers are produced at the base of a fleshy central spike called a spadix, which is surrounded by a frilled spathe. The spadix can range from 6 to 12 feet tall. As the common name “corpse flower” suggests, Amorphophallus titanum in bloom smells strongly of rotting meat. This stench attracts pollinators that feed on dead animals. The deep red color at the center of the open spathe perpetuates the meaty illusion.
Titan arums take years to form flower buds, but when they finally do, the flowers mature quickly. In the first several days of the bloom cycle, this bud can grow four to six inches per day. Then growth slows significantly. The two bracts at the base of the spathe shrivel and fall off. Next, the spathe, which was once tightly wound around the spadix, begins to open, revealing the deep red color inside. The period from identification of a viable flower bud by horticulturists at NYBG to the completion of the flowering cycle occurs in a matter of weeks.
During bloom, the spadix self-heats for a period to approximately human body temperature, which helps disseminate odor particles in pulses. The odor is most pungent when the plant first blooms and then dissipates. The spathe typically unfurls over the course of about 24 to 36 hours (full bloom) before withering and dying back.
During the period of bloom there is a female stage when the plant is ripe for pollination followed by a male stage when pollen is produced by the male flowers. The female flowers are in a ring at the bottom of the spadix and the male flowers are in a ring just above. In its natural habitat, pollinators are drawn by the smell and heat and creep inside the spathe, unknowingly depositing pollen from another plant on the receptive female flowers. When the structure begins to collapse, the "fragrance" fades and the pollinators begin to depart. As they leave, they rub against the pollen in the male flowers and are now ready to carry it to a nearby female flower.
A young corpse flower takes about seven to ten years to store enough energy to begin its first bloom cycle. Each year, the plant’s corm (a tuberous underground root structure) bears vegetation that grows up to 15 feet tall. The umbrella-like structure resembles a tree but is technically one enormous leaf made up of many small leaflets, branching from a stalk called a petiole; you can see one in the photo above to the left of the blooming 2018 corpse flower. The leaf gathers energy from the sun to store in its corm. The 2021 plant, for instance, was 14 years old and has been in NYBG's collection for over seven years, putting out a single leaf annually and saving the energy to bloom. Quite incredibly, it was the same plant that bloomed previously in 2016 and again in 2019 and a sibling of the 2018 titan arum.
Amorphophallus titanum are nurtured in the warm tropical zone of the Nolen Greenhouses. The hot and humid conditions in the greenhouse mimic the natural conditions of its native Sumatra. The enormous corm—which can weigh 200 pounds—is potted on a thin cushion of sand and covered with 2 to 3 inches of fertile soil. The plant must be watered and fertilized copiously—corpse flowers are heavy feeders.
Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari was the first Westerner to encounter this plant in 1878. Beccari sent seeds and corms to Europe for cultivation. NYBG received its first Amorphophallus titanum in 1932. The sixty-pound corm was planted in a wooden tub and placed above the surface of an aquatic pool here in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. By 1936, the corm had grown to over 100 pounds. In May, 1937, the flower bud appeared and the Conservatory was mobbed with news photographers and newsreel cameramen. The flower began to open at lunchtime on June 8, when photographers and Garden staff were all at lunch! Though the bloom began to close slightly the next morning, the spadix remained upright for another three days before suddenly collapsing. Generally the life cycle of the bloom is only one or two days.
A second specimen received in 1935 bloomed on July 2, 1939. Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons commemorated the event by designating Amorphophallus titanum as the official flower of the Bronx on July 5, saying “its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the large and fastest growing borough in the City of New York.” Sadly, the Bronx’s official flower was replaced by the nicer-smelling, but much less special day lily in 2000.
Our 2023 plant was one of 5 mature and 16 immature plants calling NYBG home at the time. It was put on display in the Conservatory on March 23rd and bloomed from April 4th to 7th. The 2021 Amorphophallus titanum was the same plant that produced blooms in 2016 and 2019. In our collection, NYBG has a number of Amorphophallus titanum that are old enough to bloom, some of which are siblings of the plants that have bloomed recently. Many visitors remember previous corpse flowers which bloomed in June 2019, June 2018 and in July 2016. The 2016 plant attracted more than 25,000 visitors to smell the bloom in person and nearly two million views of its progress on a live online video feed.