Corpse flower in bloom at Morrill Greenhouses, UMass Amherst, July 3, 2019

Rare, smelly ‘corpse flower’ attracts curious noses

July 3, 2019

Curious staffers and members of the public lined up to view — and smell — the “corpse flower” in the UMass Amherst Natural History Collection today, welcoming a blooming Amorphophallus titanum, or 6-foot tall corpse flower, one of the world’s biggest flowering structures.  

 

Shortly before the corpse flower opens, it emits the stink of rotting flesh in order to attract pollinators such as carrion beetles and blow flies in its native Sumatran rainforest.  

Collage of people viewing corpse flower

Botanist and assistant biology professor Madelaine Bartlett, whose research interests include plant development and evolution, with greenhouse manager Chris Phillips, say the campus had its last blooming corpse flower about four years ago. Bartlett says, “These plants are sophisticated chemical factories; they have an amazing ability to produce chemicals to attract pollinators. It’s biological mimicry of a fascinating kind.” 

She adds that the corpse flower is just one of the many examples of biomimicry, unusual pollination methods and botanical oddities found in UMass Amherst’s “very special teaching and research collection” that is used regularly to teach students about some of the more unusual plants found around the world. 

Corpse flower closeupsPhillips notes that once a flower blooms, its “peak stinkiness” lasts about 24 to 48 hours depending on environmental conditions. Although the name ‘corpse flower’ is descriptive, it’s misleading. Instead of being a single flower, A. titanum actually bears hundreds of individual flowers; about 400 to 500 male and female on one structure, which grows about three inches per night. 

This particular specimen has been in the UMass collection for 30 years, and this is the third time a bloom has been recorded. The underground portion of this specimen weighs 37 pounds, says Phillips, but there are records of individuals up to 350 pounds. He points out that a daughter plant has been propagated in the pot next to the large bloom, and in that pot are a few smaller “granddaughter” plants.  

“As it continues to decline in the wild, I feel it’s in our mission to keep good healthy specimens in captivity,” says Phillips. He hopes to harvest some of the pollen from this bloom and store it for a possible future collaboration another collection that might have a bloom at some point. 

Phillips says the Morrill Greenhouse will extend its public open hours today until 8:30 p.m. so that the public can come in and see it, along with other special botanicals in the collection. 

Visitor info: 
Morrill Hall South Greenhouse, 627 North Pleasant Street, Amherst 
Metered parking on nearby Thatcher Way and next to Franklin Dining Common; free parking in Lots 62 and 63 after 5 p.m.   

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