ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University has a unique and brief sight at the moment — a “corpse plant” blooming outdoors in a temperate climate.
The rare, smelly plant — Amorphophallus titanum or Titan arum — is an odd sight sitting in a planter in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Minns Garden. Titan arums are native to the hot and humid rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, and are threatened by deforestation.
Cornell has two mature Titan arums named “Wee Stinky” and “Carolus,” the one currently blooming.
Though it looks like a giant flower, it is actually a modified leaf. The flowers hoping for pollination during the brief bloom time are inside. The corpse plant has a tall, column-like structure called a spadix that can grow several feet tall. At the base of the spadix are groups of small male and female flowers. The female flowers open first for about a day and the male flowers open the next day. After the bloom, the plant withers and may not bloom again for about two years.
Carolus began to bloom around 4 p.m. Monday and was already beginning to wilt at noon Tuesday.
It is believed that Carolus is the first corpse plant to bloom outdoors in a temperate climate like Ithaca.
“We wanted to do an experiment. We wanted to see how it would do growing out of doors, out of the greenhouse,” said Karl Niklas, a plant biologist and professor at Cornell. Once temperatures were warm enough this summer, they planted the 100-pound corm — similar to a plant bulb — in Minns Garden, where people have watched it grow all summer.
“It’s quite a beautiful, strange looking structure,” Niklas said.
It can take between seven and 10 years for the plant to mature enough to bloom. And when it does bloom, it lasts only about two days.
The “corpse plant” is rightfully named. Approaching the plant in Minns Garden, there was no obvious smell but close up and downwind the stench was strong. Niklas described it as a “dumpster on a hot August day,” which was accurate and almost too forgiving. It’s the kind of smell that sticks in the back of your throat.
“This whole thing is trying to mimic rotting flesh,” Niklas said. “The color, the mottling on the inside, the fragrance, so that it attracts flies and carrion-eating beetles that will transport pollen … because where it grows, those are the natural dependable pollinators.”
The tall spadix also produces heat and acts like a chimney to spread the pungent aroma. Niklas said it can reach 106 degrees.
Carolus last bloomed in 2015 and grew more than six feet tall.
The name Carolus is derived from Carl Linnaeus, known as the “father of modern taxonomy” for formalizing the modern system of classifying organisms.
After just two days of blooming, the corpse plant begins to wilt and the spadix will collapse. Eventually, the plant will send up a single, tree-sized leaf. This vegetative stage is followed by a three- to seven-month long dormant stage. It may cycle through several vegetative stages before flowering again.
Both Titan arums at Cornell were grown from seedlings and resided in the Liberty Hyde Bailey Horotorium in the Plant Biology Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science.
Minns Garden is open to the public. For more information, visit the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory website.