Corpse Flower at NC State
A rare plant puts on a spectacular show - and makes a big stink.
What’s All The Stink About?
Fortunate we are! Since 2016, we’ve experienced two bloom cycles of the rare titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum). This special plant, also known as the corpse flower, smells like rotting flesh as it blooms. On both occasions the plant grew to be more than six feet tall it unfolded a magnificent flower around three feet wide.
Lupin Finds a Home at NC State
Scientists at NC State University watched a tropical plant closely as it bloomed in late September 2016, sending out not just a big flower – one of the largest in the plant kingdom – but a big stink as well.
How a Corpse Flower Took Root at NC State
Brandon Huber, a Horticultural Sciences student pursuing his doctoral degree at NC State, received his titan arum nine years ago when he was visiting the Huntington Botanical Gardens in California. Then, it was a dormant four-year old corm, an underground stem about the size of a softball. The corm has since grown to 51 pounds. Huber brought the titan arum with him to NC State.
This was the plant’s first bloom, and it came amid a rash of corpse flower blooms nationwide in recent months. About 400 Amorphophallus titanum blooms have occurred in cultivation in the past 127 years, when the first bloomed in London.
Huber and Diane Mays, who curates the greenhouse conservatory where the plant is held, both said this was a once-in-a-lifetime event for plant lovers. “I feel like I have a front row seat. To have it in our region and our greenhouse, we feel very special,” Mays says. “It’s such a spectacular plant.”
A Howlingly Pungent Flower Named Lupin
To honor the plant’s connection to NC State, Huber has named it Lupin, after Remus Lupin, a werewolf from the Harry Potter series whose name comes from the Latin word meaning wolf. In addition to watching the live stream video on this site, you can follow the plant’s progress on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #Lupin2016.
Huber has made arrangements to pollinate his plant using pollen from a titan arum that bloomed at the University of Wisconsin a few weeks ago. If that pollination is successful, he could have blooming offspring in about a decade.
About Brandon Huber
Brandon has been growing plants since early childhood and as a teen won several prizes for aroid plants he entered in for the Philadelphia Flower Show. Aroids are members of the Araceae family of plants, sometimes known as the Philodendron or Arum family.
Huber’s master’s research at NC State focused on breeding stevia, a natural sugar substitute. And now as a Ph.D. student, Huber focuses on controlled environment horticulture, where he studies the optimization of vegetable seedlings for grafting using supplemental carbon dioxide and altered light spectrum to increase the affordability of production.
The titan arum typically takes 7-10 years of vegetative growth before it blooms for the first time.
Corpse Flower Quick Facts
What is a titan arum, or corpse flower, and why do horticulturists care about something that smells like spoiled meat?
- The titan arum has one of the largest flowering structures in the plant kingdom. While this structure looks like a huge single flower, it’s actually an inflorescence, or stalk of many flowers.
- The titan’s flowers grow at the base of the central phallus-like structure, or spadix, and are hidden by a skirt-like covering called a spathe. The spathe is bright green on the outside, and when it blooms, it reveals a deep burgundy on the inside.
- The rare titan arum is a tropical plant, having been found by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in Sumatra, Indonesia, in the late 1800s. It grows near the edges of rain forests, which means it needs warm day and night temperatures and high humidity.
- The plant got its common name, “titan arum,” from the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who thought viewers of his BBC series The Private Lives of Plants would be offended by the plant’s Latin name, Amorphophallus titanum, or giant misshapen penis.
- The titan arum is sometimes called the “corpse flower,” because when it blooms it smells like rotting flesh. The smell attracts insects such as carrion beetles and flies that pollinate the plant. And such pollination is important, because the titan arum can’t self-pollinate; its female flowers mature before the male, or pollen-producing, flowers.
- As the plant blooms, it actually heats up to human body temperature. That heat allows the stench to carry farther, and it also helps attract pollinators.
- It takes at least seven years for the titan arum to bloom for the first time, and sometimes it can take even longer. The one in NC State University’s conservatory greenhouse took 13 years to bloom for the first time.
- Subsequent blooms often occur every three to seven years for the rest of the plant’s life.
- Titan arums can, in theory, live indefinitely. Pollinating the plants can sometimes kill them as it sucks a great deal of energy from the plant. They are also at risk from pathogens.
- During its life cycle, the titan arum produces one large single leaf at a time. The leaf’s petiole looks like the trunk of a small tree, reaching 10 to 15 feet. After about 15 or 16 months, it goes dormant. After dormancy it will either grow another single leaf or a bloom, with the bud taking months to form. After it breaks the soil surface, it will grow steadily for a few weeks. (Brandon Huber’s titan arum at NC State grew by nearly six inches one day!)
- When the inflorescence finally opens fully, it remains open for a day or two before collapsing and restarting the life cycle. Blooms are typically from 4 to 8 feet tall.
- If the titan arum is pollinated, the female flowers turn into bright orange-red fruits. Inside the fruits are seeds that can develop into new corms.
- There are now three titan arums growing in the NC State University conservatory greenhouse. Lupin (our original corpse flower that is named after the Werewolf in the Harry Potter series), Wolfgang (a young plant in the leaf cycle phase) and a yet-to-be named clone of Lupin.
You can continue to follow Lupin’s progress on Twitter and Instagram at #Lupin2016 – named for its original bloom year.
Biological Sciences Greenhouse, Ohio State University https://bioscigreenhouse.osu.edu/titan-arum-faqs
United States Botanical Garden https://www.usbg.gov/corpse-flower-bloom-2013
University of California at Berkley Botanical Garden http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu/titan-arums/
Titan arums only grow in the wild in the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia.
Visit Brandon Huber’s photo gallery for more images of Lupin’s evolution.
Fundraising efforts for the Horticultural Science Enrichment Fund operate under the auspices of the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-id 56-6049304.