What’s That Smell?

corpse flower

The corpse flower can sure raise a stink. (Photo credit: Isabelle OHara/Shutterstock)

Its aroma is likened to that of decaying flesh or rotting meat. All who have gotten a whiff firsthand agree it’s a scent you won’t soon forget. What gives off such a putrid smell? It’s the scent of a blooming corpse flower, scientific name Amorphophallus titanum. Also known as the titan arum, this plant features one of the world’s largest and rarest flowering structures. Its rotten scent is meant to attract insect pollinators, who are also drawn to the plant due its dark burgundy color and increased temperature, all reminiscent of the rotting flesh of an animal that the typically carnivorous insects feed from. Once the insects land inside the plant, instead of finding a tasty tidbit to eat, they instead find themselves covered in pollen, helping the plant to reproduce.

A chemical analysis of the plant’s aroma by a researcher at the Chicago Botanic Garden indicates that the scent is made up of several different aromatics, including “dimethyl trisulfide (limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (Chloraseptic), and indole (mothballs).” Luckily, for those that get to view the corpse flower firsthand, the plant does not emit its aroma around the clock. Because it takes so much energy to produce the scent, it is instead produced in waves, like a tsunami of stink.

Flowering itself is a rare event–it can take up to seven years for the flower to bloom, and the plants only bloom once every few decades. Once the plant blooms, the flower only lasts for a few days. More than ten corpse plants flowered this year in botanic gardens across the United States. Researchers think this unusual simultaneous blooming is a result of the plants all having come from the same seed distribution, effectively making the plants “cousins.” As such, it wouldn’t be unusual for plants from the same genetic background to show similar patterns in flowering.

The corpse flower was first discovered in Sumatra in 1878. Its habitat is restricted to tropical regions of Asia. While not considered endangered, it is becoming more and more rare in the wild due to habitat destruction resulting from deforestation. In the United States, corpse flowers are housed at botanic gardens and university greenhouses around the country. This year, the plants flowered in botanic gardens and university greenhouses in Chicago, Illinois; Winter Park, Florida; Charleston, Illinois; New York City, New York; Bloomington, Indiana; Sarasota, Florida, Washington, D.C.; Denver, Colorado, River Falls, Wisconsin; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Hanover, New Hampshire.

More to Explore
The Corpse Flower: Behind the Stink
Missouri Botanical Garden: The Corpse Flower
Corpse Flower: Facts About the Smelly Plant
America’s pungent corpse flowers are all mysteriously blooming at once
About That Smell…

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