Why Have Loads Of Corpse Flowers Been Releasing Their Stink Recently?

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You may have seen (or smelled) that the corpse flower in New York’s botanical garden began to bloom last Friday morning. Along with nearly 2 million people viewing a live-stream video of its blooming, the Bronx park was filled with onlookers for this distinctly gross-smelling event. But for reasons that are still baffling the world’s botanists, there has been a freakish amount of these bloomings going on right now in the United States, from NYC all the way to Florida.

The corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) – meaning  “giant misshapen penis” – can grow up to 4.5 meters (15 feet), but it's best known for the rancid smell it releases when it blooms. The Guardian spoke to the crowds at New York’s botanical garden on Friday, who described the smell as a “dead animal”, “one thousand pukes”, “dead fish”, and “like the penguin enclosure”.

The stink itself contains a cocktail of foul-smelling chemical compounds, such as indole found in human feces, dimethyl trisulfide found in cheeses, dimethyl disulfide found in garlic, and isovaleric acid found in stale sweat. When in its natural habitat of the western Sumatran jungle in Indonesia, the plant does this to attract flesh-eating beetles and flies to pollinate it. 

But here’s where it gets even more strange – the blooming of the corpse flower is very unpredictable. It takes the plant 10 years to first flower, and then it only sporadically blossoms every three to nine years.

However, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) points out, along with NYC’s resident plant, there are also corpse flowers on the brink of releasing their stink in Sarasota in Florida, Bloomington in Indiana, and Washington DC. Along with that, the previous few months have seen corpse flowers blooming in Missouri and two more in Chicago. A study from the University of Wisconsin had previously found just 157 documented bloomings in the world between 1889 and 2008.

Some are putting it down to pure coincidence or the fact that more botanical gardens and universities have these plants due to the public interest they attract. 

However, others are suspecting there could be a biological explanation. Firstly, it could be that the humid summer of the US closely mimics their homeland of Sumatra. Although, the nationwide variations in weather means this still doesn’t quite add up.

Secondly, it could be that all these US plants are from the same genetic stock. This would make sense, considering the sudden boom in US corpse flowers since the nineties. However, documents of where they all came from remain hazy and largely unrecorded.

Daniel Janzen, a professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, told the WSJ about his own theory of this mass blooming. He suggests that it could be “a way for slowly maturing plants to improve the chances of cross-pollination.”

In Sumatra, these plants are often miles apart through thick rainforest, so the chance of cross-pollination is slim. However, if they were to bloom at a similar time, then it could slightly increase their chances. How this mechanism works, and how the plants seemingly “know” others are blooming, could be genetic. But for now, the botanists are still stumped.

“Will we ever really understand what happened? Probably not,” Marc Hachadourian, a director at the New York Botanical Garden told WSJ. “Unfortunately, only the plants will ever know.”

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