Corpse Flower Diaries

Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP

I first became aware of the amazing Amorphophallus titanum 4 years ago during a “bloom watch” of a Kenneth Post Lab Greenhouses specimen at Cornell University.  At the time the concept of a “Greenhouse Cam” was completely new to me, and I followed it, and the science behind the study of the plant, with fascination. Despite the rarity of the flower, a handful have bloomed within the past several years, the most recent being at the New York Botanical Garden.

All that said, the Corpse Flower by nature is the botanical version of a “comedic straight man” in the set up of story-based jokes. (For example, the scientific name means “giant misshapen phallus”.)

Thanks to one of our favorite New Yorker writers for taking up the topic with such enthusiastic spirit!


Day One: Thursday, July 21, 2016

10:37 a.m.

I learn of the impending bloom of a corpse flower at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx. “These things are basically the horticultural equivalent of pandas,” my editor writes. People go nuts for them.

Preliminary research. The corpse flower is native to Sumatra. It typically blooms for one to two days every ten years, and smells like rotting meat.

3:20 p.m.

During a session with my therapist, I mention that I am considering an assignment to cover the corpse flower. My therapist has not heard of the corpse flower. We discuss its peculiarities. The mature corpse flower reaches a height of six to eight feet in captivity, ten to twelve feet in the wild.

A corpse flower has not bloomed in New York City since 2006, and the last bloom before that was in 1939.

“Is that why it’s called a corpse flower?” my therapist asks.

I wonder if this is a reference to the Holocaust.

My therapist remarks that he is reminded of a previous assignment that I had talked about. “Something with some insects that live in dung?”

“The dung beetles!” I recall.

We reminisce about this assignment, which involved a plant with seeds that smell like dung. Dung beetles are tricked into pushing these seeds for great distances across the savanna. We briefly discuss what it is that causes me to receive such assignments, and what impels me to accept them.

10:15 p.m.

More research. In 1939, the corpse flower was named the official flower of the Bronx. It held this status until 2000, when Bronx officials, seeking to address what the Times called the borough’s “image problems,” opted to replace it with the day lily.

It turns out that my old friends the dung beetles, along with flesh flies and other carrion-loving insects, comprise the corpse flower’s primary pollinators. Attracted by the corpselike smell, they crawl into the flower, find no carrion, and get stuck in gooey pollen, which they carry out with them and spread throughout the world.

The Latin name of the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, means “giant misshapen phallus.” I wonder whether this information might be of interest to my therapist.

Enjoy the entire article here.


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