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Why Are So Many Corpse Flowers Blooming at Once?

Botanists may have some “rational” theories, but don’t let science lure you into a false sense of security.

Titans arum in bloom at the U.S. Botanic Garden. This flower stinks. (Photo: U.S. Botanic Garden / Public Domain

If Friday’s announcement that the New York Botanical Garden’s corpse flower was in bloom—the first occurrence in the city since 1939—inspired a sense of dejá vu, it may not be all in your head. The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that over half a dozen of the gigantic plants have bloomed this year in the United States, unusually, at the same time.

What’s going on? 

Titan arums (scientifically known as Amorphophallus titanum), commonly known as the “corpse flower” is a truly unique plant. According to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which hosted the first titan arums to bloom in cultivation in 1889, the plant boasts “one of the largest flowering structures and one of the foulest odours in the plant kingdom.” The smell produced by the flower is so gross—and so multi-faceted in its composition, with descriptions ranging from “Limburger cheese” to “rotting flesh” to “one thousand pukes”—that scientists have made efforts to isolate and identify the chemical compounds that inspire the plant’s popular nickname. The odor is believed to be intended to attract insects that feed and/or breed in carrion and dung, tricking them into serving as pollinators for the plant. Thankfully, according to The Washington Post, producing the odor requires a tremendous amount of energy, “so the odor is fleeting and comes in waves or, more likely, tsunamis.” Meaning that while the odor is one of the most recognizable features of the plant, most visitors to the New York Botanical Garden won’t have to cope with the smell.

If the idea of seeing a ten-foot-tall flower without being overwhelmed by a horrific stench disappoints you, there’s good news! The Guardian notes that corpse flowers are expected to bloom soon (or have just started blooming) in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Sarasota, Florida. That’s on top of blooms earlier this year in Chicago, Charleston, Illinois, and Winter Park, Florida. Considering that the University of Wisconsin tracked only 157 recorded corpse flower blooms between 1889 and 2008, that’s a lot of corpse flowers blooming in just one country over just one year.

In fact, the number of blooms is puzzling botanists, as the New York Botanical Garden’s Marc Hachadourian explained to the Wall Street Journal, “A few of us are saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, how did six or seven happen all at once?’”

Typically, plants flower around the same time to encourage cross-pollination, particularly plants that are slow to mature. But as biology professor Daniel Janzen told the Wall Street Journal, that explanation doesn’t really make sense for the corpse flowers. The plant, which is endemic to the rainforests of Sumatra, is rare in the wild, and their pollinators-of-choice generally don’t travel far (unlike, for example, bees). Janzen suggested that it may be that the U.S.-based flowers come from the same seed distribution, making them “cousins” and more likely to follow similar flowering patterns.

There’s some evidence for this, the Journal writes, as it’s possible that the synchronized blooms came from seed distributions carried out between 2002 and 2008, when the number of corpse flowers in U.S. greenhouses and botanical gardens increased. But unfortunately, little is known about the origins of many of the flowers currently blooming, so the “cousins” theory is difficult to verify.

Of course, the increased commonality of corpse flowers could be an explanation in and of itself—as the Post notes, “[Corpse flower] flowering has become a hugely popular if not common phenomenon in botanical gardens around the world, not least because this plant draws thousands of ticket-paying visitors.” It makes sense for botanical gardens to seek out and cultivate plants that draw visitors, and more titan arums living in controlled, observed environments would naturally lead to more documented flowerings.

But let’s not stop at so-called “rational explanations.” Kew claims that in their greenhouses, “flowerings have become a remarkably common occurrence—we have seen more than three times as many titan arums flower at Kew in the last six years than in the previous 120 years!” Given our penchant for coming up with colorful ways to describe their stench—and the fact that Amorphophallus titanum means “giant misshapen penis,” which is kind of a cruel name for a plant, frankly—is it really that far-fetched to suggest that the titan arums of the world have decided, en masse, to teach humanity a very smelly lesson?