The Stench of Death
Sniffing Out the Elusive Corpse Flower
Normally, humans find the stench of death revolting and avoid it at all costs, but that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to the corpse flower. This rare flowering plant has captivated audiences around the world not because of its delightful floral fragrance or its beautiful flowers, but because of its disgusting stench and massive, short-lived blossom. The corpse flower leaves many wondering - why would a flower smell so foul?
A corpse flower in bloom at the Eden Project being measured. The flower measured 2.8 meters (9 foot 3 inches) tall.
Photo by Vicotria Woollaston, The Daily Mail.
What is the corpse flower?
The 2016 corpse flower flowering event at the San Diego Botanical Garden. Image by the San Diego Botanical Garden.
The corpse flower is from the Amorphophallus genus that contains over 200 plant species. This genus is distributed from Madagascar to Southeast Asia, and south to Australia. There are over 90 species of Amorphophallus found in Malaysia and Indonesia, with Sumatra being the main hot spot. The corpse flower is native to the rainforests of Sumatra. It was first documented in 1879 by Dr. Odoardo Ceccari and has intrigued botanists and plant enthusiasts ever since.
Why does the corpse flower smell so bad?
Hand-pollinating a corpse flower. A small window is cut at the base of the spathe to manually pollinate a blooming female plant using pollen saved from a male plant. This is done because the male and female plants do not bloom at the same time. In order for pollination to occur and for fruit and seeds to be produced the corpse flowers at the Chicago Botanical Garden must be pollinated by hand.
Photo by the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Chemical signals that are used to communicate with different species, such as the corpse flower’s stinky smell, are called allelochemicals. This chemical signal sent by the corpse flower to insect pollinators is called an allomone. Allomones benefit the signal sender (the corpse flower) but not the receiver (the insect pollinators). This deception does not harm the insects and greatly increases the chance that the rare corpse flower will reproduce.
So what makes the corpse flower so stinky to humans?