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Timing is everything: Corpse flower blooms on Halloween

The big bloomer, early Halloween eve.
The big bloomer, early Halloween eve.

(Maurice Hewitt)

A rare and unusual flower came into bloom at San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG) on Oct. 31 —a perfect time for the aptly-named corpse flower to show its stuff.

The corpse flower, native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, gets its common name from the way it smells in full bloom, when it increases its internal temperature to spread its scent widely, attracting the largest number of carrion-feeding beetles and flies to come in for pollination.

To humans, more interesting than how the plant smells is how it looks. Its Latin name, Amorphophallus titanium, refers to its gigantic, slightly misshapen and rather phallic flower spike, which can grow up to 12 feet tall—a record in the plant kingdom.

It doesn’t bloom often—only once every four or five years, and that’s after taking up to 10 years to reach maturity. And the fully-opened blooms are short-lived, only lasting about 48 hours.

The two corpse flowers: The small one will look like the bloomer in three or four weeks.
The two corpse flowers: The small one will look like the bloomer in three or four weeks.
(Maurice Hewitt)

There are less than 1,000 of these plants left in the wild, but SDBG is one of the botanic gardens that have been working to keep corpse flowers alive and blooming. The bloom date is never quite certain, so it was exciting to receive an email an hour before Halloween sunset announcing that the moment had come.

Those who were there didn’t see any of the hundreds of flowers, since they’re hidden deep inside the plant, but what was seen was truly wonderful. There was not just one 72-inch-tall corpse flower on view, a much shorter plant a few feet away was what the big bloomer had looked like four weeks ago, when both were installed in the gorgeous Dickinson Family Conservatory. Some of the visitors shared photos they’d taken earlier in the day; the plant had grown several inches since then but stopped growing once it flowered.

“Our superpower is horticulture,” said SDBG’s President and CEO Ari Novy. “One of our gardeners, Eric Evans, made a special arrangement that would give the corpse flowers a chance to shine. We want people to get excited about plants and these plants are ‘rock stars.’”

Brandi Eide, senior director of horticulture, recording the plant’s temperature.
Brandi Eide, senior director of horticulture, recording the plant’s temperature.
(Maurice Hewitt)

The Garden stayed open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for two days, and on Halloween night, just after closing, the plant was hand-pollinated by SDBG Curator Jeremy Bugarchich, since the necessary pollinators are tropical insects that can’t survive in this climate. The seeds produced over the next year should someday give rise to other plants. The corpse flower’s bloom would be gone with the Days of the Dead, but if the pollination takes—hopefully, it will—the plant will live on and on.

Participants at the event didn’t see the pollinating, but they did catch the scent, at least this reporter’s husband did. The plant’s name, he said, was all too authentic; it reminded him of his time in Vietnam. Unlike most of the others at the event who were actively sniffing, he didn’t want to get too close. But he returned the next morning to get another photo: the “rock star” had spread its skirt and grown redder since Halloween.

There’s been a terrific response to the corpse flower’s blooming. On Nov. 1, by 7 p.m., SDBG had surpassed 2,000 visitors, with many more signed up for reservations the following day.

The Garden is thrilled by the outpouring of interest. But if you ask Ari Novy, the most amazing thing about the corpse flower is not looks or odor but the power to warm itself up.

“It’s actually from a family that can do that—even some of their anthurium and philodendron relatives have the ability to heat up,” he said. “But on Halloween, when we checked other plants’ temperatures, they were in the 50s. The corpse flower went up to 97 degrees!”

The morning after, with a wider and redder “skirt.”
The morning after, with a wider and redder “skirt.”
(Maurice Hewitt)

You don’t have to feel sad if you missed the blooming. Check the corpse flower plant page on the Garden’s website and look for updates on Facebook and Instagram. The short plant should be ready to go in three or four weeks.

Visit sdbgarden.org for more information.


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