What is truly remarkable about this plant is that it is one of the largest, rarest and possibly smelliest flowers you could ever encounter. The first European to discover the monster plant was Italian botanist and explorer Dr Odoardo Beccari in Indonesia in 1878. These massive and dramatic plants are endangered in the wild as their natural habitat is suffering from human development and encroachment and their long lifespans and rare blooming cycles make them poorly adaptable to the quickly-changing environment once man moves in. Nobody knows how many currently exist in the wild.
The plant begins its life as a large tuberous root, called a corm, which can weigh up to 200lbs. The corm grows and stores energy for up to ten years before being ready to flower. When it does, a central spike grows, rising at up to six inches per day before reaching a maximum height of 9 feet. During this growing phase, its appearance is rather like that of a giant ear of corn. When the growth slows down to less than an inch per day, it is getting ready to bloom. The scientific name Amorphophallus titanum, means ‘huge deformed penis’; its Indonesian common name, bunga bangkai, roughly translated means ‘corpse flower’.
The popular name titan arum was invented by the broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough for his TV series The Private Life of Plants, in which the flowering and pollination of the plant were filmed for the first time. Attenborough felt that referring to the plant by the latin name Amorphophallus on a popular TV show could be misinterpreted.
When fully opened, the gigantic flower looks like an upturned bell with frilly edges and a thick clapper in the middle. Opinion about the stench emitted by the plant is generally negative. It can remind you of rotten eggs, fish, meat, and even cheese. This is caused by sulfur compounds.
The flower first opens at night, and becomes so hot it steams, one unusual feature of this plant being that it produces heat by itself. During the unfurling of the spathe through the hours-long production of its dreadful scent, a specimen in a California hothouse raised its temperature from 68 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which further transmits the foul plant scent, helping to deceive carcass-eating insects into visiting the flower. As they crawl in, the outer leaf closes and traps them inside. After the male flowers discharge their pollen, it opens again, and in their haste to get away, insects rub the pollen onto the female flowers as they pass. After fertilization, beautiful bright red fruits the size of olives appear.
After only three days, the flower dies away, but that is far from the end of the story. The single leaf produced by the tuber grows into a tree-like plant that can grow to 20ft tall and spread 15ft across, enabling the corm to begin storing energy again to be deployed years down the line.
This truly remarkable denizen of the plant world is really something to see when in flower, and announcements are made by the keepers, like those at Kew Gardens, well in advance. Do try to get along and see this incredible flower when next the opportunity arises, because they really are few and far between. The biggest, rarest, smelliest flowers on Earth. Now what more could you ask?