Corpse Flower

Categories: Friday Film, something fun
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Published on: February 15, 2013

If you have even been close to a hawthorn tree, you will know that yesterday’s post about pretty roses and petunias didn’t tell the whole story about floral smells. Today, lets consider a flower far smellier than mildly unpleasant hawthorn blossoms – the fascinating titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, sometimes also known as the corpse flower. It has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world, emits a powerful, horrible smell like rotting flesh, and is thermogenic.

Shirashi et al. (2010, Biosci Biotechnol Biochem 74:2550) published observations of a titan arum in flower. When the petal-like spathe began to open, the plant emitted a smell like rotten fruit. As time went on, the smell became stronger and more unpleasant. When the spathe opened fully, revealing the tall spadix, the spadix became up to to 5°C hotter than the ambient temperature and secreted a strong smelling fluid like rotton flesh. The spathe was open for around 12 hours.

Shirashu et al. identified the odorous chemical emitted by the titan arum as dimethyl trisulphate, a product of bacterial decomposition of mammalian flesh. It is emitted by a few other plants, all of which, like the corpse flower, are pollinated by insects that feed on rotting flesh.

The titan arum is an impressive, but rather gruesome, plant. And like all gruesome things, it attracts visitors to science outreach events! The video above is about the Corpse Flower attraction at the Museum of Natural Science in Houston.

Video credit: VOA News, via YouTube. 


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