Titan Arum (Corpse Flower)

About titan arum

Amorphophallus titanum in full bloom is a sight to behold. The frilled petal-like structure visible during its flowering phase is actually a modified leaf called a spathe that sheathes its inflorescence (flower-bearing part of the plant). The large yellow spike that towers above the spathe is the plant’s spadix, which bears clusters of small male and female flowers at its base. Even more striking than its appearance is the odor A. titanum produces, an overpowering aroma of rotten flesh which explains the plant’s common name of corpse flower. The scent—a chemical blend of dimethyl trisulfide, isovaleric acid, dimethyl disulfide, benzyl alcohol, indole, and trimethylamine—lures insects, such as beetles and flies, who serve as its pollinators. The spectacular showing is usually short-lived, typically lasting only a day or two before dying back. Over the next 6 to 12 months, if pollination is successful, each female flower will develop olive-sized reddish orange berries, each containing up to three seeds.

The titan arum is a member of the Aroid (Araceae) family with over 3,000 other species including the New England native, Jack-in-the pulpit. The family is found across the tropical world and typically share the recognizable spathe and spadix flowering morphology. During its leaf cycle, A. titanum appears tree-like, with a single leaf growing out of a large corm (underground stem) that can weigh up to 250 pounds. What looks like a tree stem is actually a petiole (leafstalk) and the “leaves” are actually a single leaf divided into many leaflets. 

Europeans first became aware of the plant in 1878 when Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari came across it on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. He sent seeds back to Italy and to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, where A. titanum first bloomed in 1889. As of 2018, the corpse flower is listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an estimated fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. 

At Lyman, we have 24 Amorphophallus titanums in various growth phases and we hope to see many more blooms in the years to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this the first titan arum to bloom at the Botanic Garden of Smith College? 

  • No, a titan arum bloomed at Lyman in 2005 and was the first of its kind to do so in Massachusetts. It flowered again in 2008 and 2012. This titan arum was given to us as a corm by UConn’s Clinton Morse in September 2002. This plant was grown from seeds collected in 1995 by a physician named James Symon in an abandoned rubber plantation located about 40 km south of Lake Toba in north Sumatra, Indonesia.  It flowered first in August 2005, a second time in July 2008, and a third time in September 2012.  After the third flowering the corm unfortunately rotted and died.

    We also had a flowering plant in September 2021, just as Lyman reopened to the public after being closed for 19 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This titan arum was grown from seed given to us in 2007 by Louis Ricciardiello. 

Where did these plants come from? 

  • Our current titan arum plants are from 30 seeds acquired in April 2007 from Louis Ricciardiello, who had cross-pollinated plants grown from 12 seeds from the 2001 flowering of “Big Bucky” at the University of Wisconsin, which was pollinated with pollen from "Mr. Magnificent" at the Marie Selby Gardens. Ricciardiello’s plant flowered in 2006. Of these 30 seeds, 25 germinated.  

    The plants that are currently flowering are corms from a large plant with three leaves that lived in Fern and Palm House during its last vegetative phase; one of these leaves was at least seven feet tall. We repotted this plant after it went dormant, and found, three corms filling practically all the available space in a quite large plastic pot. The corms weighed in at  7.4, 4.6 and 4.7 kg (16, 10 & 10 lbs), with the two smaller offset corms crowding the bottom of the pot below the original, largest one. Now the largest corm is flowering along with the 4.6 kg corm. The third corm remains dormant.  We expect these flowers to be considerably larger than last year’s due to the larger corm sizes. 

How many titan arums do you have in your collection? 

  • As of June 2022, we have 24 plants in various growth stages, including the two coming into flower.  

Why does it smell putrid? 

  • The smell is the reason it’s called the corpse flower. Chemically, the scent is a combination of dimethyl trisulfide, isovaleric acid, dimethyl disulfide, benzyl alcohol, indole, and trimethylamine—which the Huntington Botanical Gardens rather notably describes as a combination of Limburger cheese, garlic, rotting fish and smelly feet. The plant is working to attract native Sumatran pollinators, carrion beetles and flesh flies, which seek out decaying, rotten meat on which to lay their eggs. The area of the spadix that smells, called the appendix, sits above all of the flowers (male and female) and is the part that sticks out of the spathe before it opens.

How do you know when the plant is going to bloom?

  • Determining bloom time can be challenging to determine, as the beginning of its leaf cycle looks very similar to its flower cycle. As the arum begins to prepare to bloom, it grows several inches a day. It will then slow its growth rate in preparation for opening. The two bracts at the base of the spathe will begin to dry up and in the days before the full bloom, they will fall off. The spathe then begins to loosen and open to reveal a velvety burgundy color inside. At this point, the bloom is forthcoming. 

How long does it bloom for?

  • The plant generally blooms for 24 to 36 hours after the spathe opens fully. 

How frequently does it bloom?

  • If started from seed, a corm may take nearly a decade to reach the size necessary to support a bloom. Once a plant has bloomed once and the corm is mature, it may take three to seven years to store up enough energy to bloom again.

How big can this plant get?

  • There are reports of titan arums growing 10 to 12 feet tall with a bloom diameter of up to 5 feet in their native Sumatra. However, in cultivation, you can expect to see titan arums reaching 6 to 8 feet in height, with a diameter closer to 3 feet. While it looks like a giant flower, the bloom is technically a large unbranched inflorescence (flower-bearing part of the plant). In its vegetative form, its leaves can reach 15 feet tall.

Will this plant die after blooming?

  • No, blooming will not end the life cycle of the titan arum. If pollinated, it will produce fruit in the next 6 to 12 months. In its native Sumatra these fruits are much prized by rhinoceros hornbills, which spread the seeds around their native rainforest habitat. Once the fruit is ripe, the plant will fully dieback and after a year or so of dormancy, will reemerge in its vegetative form, gathering energy for a few cycles until it is ready to bloom again.

More Resources: