Witness Rare Bloom of Corpse Flower

(Note, as of 4/24/16: Experts had this flower blooming this weekend, but it still hasn’t happened yet. However, if you watched it the last two days, then you have seen a difference in the flower. I can’t imagine it not happening tomorrow. My husband’s take on this: “Maybe it doesn’t want to compete withe Game of Thrones premier.” Yeah, maybe.)

This flower only blooms once every 10 to 13 years, and it’s about to happen! You can watch this phenomenon live, either in person or via a live-streaming webcam.

It’s one of the plant kingdom’s rarest events, and it’s taking place in the Semitropical Greenhouse of the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG). Meet “Sprout,” a titan arum — or corpse flower — that has begun its bloom cycle and is preparing to open up into one of the largest flowering structures (inflorescences) in the world, and to send out one of the stinkiest stenches in the world, too!

Sprout is huge! Everything about the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is big: its flower spike, its leaf, and its corm.

On the big night, the Greenhouse will remain open after regular hours, from 7 pm to 2 am; last entry will be 1 am. Selfies are welcome with #CBGSprout. (No tripods, though.) If you’re not in the Chicago area, you can still watch Sprout 24/7 on CBG’s live webcam (above). They’re calling it #TitanWatch.

There’s only one catch with this flower. No one knows for sure exactly when the bloom and smell will happen. But, based on experience, they know it’ll happen very soon!

The titan arum in bloom looks like a 6- to 8-foot-tall-flower, but it’s actually a tall spadix (flower structure) wrapped by a spathe (a frilly modified leaf). Technically the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world, the titan arum sends up tall, umbrella-like leaves that can reach 15 feet and look like small trees.

It’s huge underground, too: leaves and flowers are powered by the largest known corm (a type of tuber) in the world. To bloom, the arum’s corm gets bigger than a beach ball, and some have been known to reach more than 200 pounds.

Titan arums don’t flower often — whether in the wild or at botanic gardens.

A native of the equatorial rainforests on the island of Sumatra (in the Indonesian archipelago), the corpse flower takes it’s time to grow before blooming — often ten years or more! Each year, the corm sends up a leaf to absorb energy from the sun. Finally the corm has enough energy stored to send up a flower bud and try to reproduce, and it’s worth the wait: an utterly thrilling visual phenomenon.

At first, even the experts don’t know if what’s emerging is a leaf or a flower bud. Days must pass before the subtle signs — a more dimpled shape, a suggestion of a frill — point to flowering. Soon the plant is powering up, growing 4 to 6 inches per day, and the spiky spadix can be seen rising from the ruffly spathe.

Here’s a time lapse of a past corpse flower (“Alice”) powering up her flower bud prior to blooming.

About two weeks into the process, growth slows, and the spathe begins to unfurl. Without warning, on a schedule of its own, the big event begins.

Timelapse of bloom.Time-lapse footage courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, August 2014. Photos taken every 20 minutes from 9:10 am at the start of the bloom to 8:50 am the following day.

Like many flowering plants, the titan arum uses scent to attract pollinators when it’s ready to reproduce.

Unlike most flowering plants, the arum has tremendous energy reserves that allow it to blast out it’s scent in one big, hours-long burst.

And the smell! The Indonesian name for the plant translates as “corpse flower,” an appropriate name to describe the decaying, rancid, rotten stench. However, what smells horrid to humans is a magnet for the carrion beetles and flesh flies that are the titan arum’s natural pollinators.

The Big Night

Bloom night is the big night for the titan arum and it’s famous stench. The flowering structure generally opens late in the afternoon, and the scent is released that night. It lingers for several hours. According to CBG, when Alice bloomed, the scent lasted from about 10 pm to about 6 am.

As the spathe opens, the true female flowers at the base of the spadix signals its readiness for fertilization by releasing scent molecules. Internal heat volatilizes the molecules (turning them to vapor), and the resulting blast of stench will alert pollinators up to an acre away that the big night has begun. As the clock ticks off the hours, the spathe will fully unveil its internal, deep maroon color — a meaty hue favored by the beetles and flies that will crawl in, fly in, and gather at the base of the “vase.”

Titan arum (corpse flower) named "Alice" in full bloom.Alice in full bloom.

The Rare Night

A corpse flower in bloom is a rare phenomenon, both in the wild and in the horticultural world.

In addition to the fact that it takes 10+ years to witness the bloom of a single titan arum, their habitat is rapidly disappearing. In its natural habitat, the rainforest hillsides of Sumatra, plants are dwindling in number due to deforestation and land clearing for palm oil plantations. It’s estimated that 72 percent of its natural habitat has already been destroyed.

In botanic gardens and arboreta around the world, titan arums have only recently been coaxed into bloom in any numbers after 10 to 12 years — that’s no small commitment to time and tending.

The Chicago Botanic Garden began its now 13-strong titan arum collection in 2003, by acquiring small corms from a variety of scientific and academic sources. Sprout, specifically, was germinated from a seed that was sent to CBG from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Since it usually takes titan arums a decade-plus to reach bloom size, most of their plants have matured at the same time. As a matter of fact, Sprout is their third corpse flower to bloom during the past 12 months. Fingers crossed for many more blooms in the future!

Don’t miss it!

Subscribe to CBG to be alerted of future blooms, and make sure you subscribe to The Nature Fan (below) so you don’t miss more cool nature stories and events like this from around the world. I will make an additional post once Sprout starts blooming, so make sure you sign up.

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