Corpse flower

Corpse Flower

By Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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Amorphophallus titanum

 
When I was single, the corpse flower was a way to help clear out the sleaze, the unsavory, the unpleasant—the weeds—of the dating world. On a dinner date, when the guy across from me asked something like, So what are some of your interests?, I’d tell him about these giant flowers with a seriously foul smell, and how I tracked them down all over the country as they were just about to bloom. Based upon his reaction, I could tell immediately whether there’d be a second date, or if I’d be ghosting him soon.

The corpse flower has the largest inflorescence in the world, with its total height averaging eight to ten feet tall. It only grows in the wild in Indonesia but several botanical gardens in the United States have had much success with growing them indoors. In 1937, the New York Botanical Garden was the first in the country to successfully display one in full bloom.

My own first encounter with a corpse flower occurred at the University of Wisconsin’s beautiful campus greenhouse in 2001. I remember being so pleased that the line of people waiting to see the flower was longer than the line to buy Dave Matthews Band tickets in town. It was the heady days of late June, and the greenhouse temperatures were already pushing into the high 80s, but that didn’t deter the hundreds who waited for over an hour to get a big whiff of that memorable smell.

This smell is basically what I imagine emanates from the bottom of a used diaper pail left out in the late August sun, after someone has also emptied a tin of sardines and a bottle of blue cheese salad dressing on top and left it there to sit for a day or three. But that smell—and the deep, meaty red of the spathe—is what attracts insects to pollinate the flower before it goes dormant for several years, folding back up into itself.

A few years ago, my husband and I took our boys to the Buffalo Botanical Gardens to see if we could catch a glimpse of “Morty,” the corpse flower who was set to bloom any day. As with any outing with two boys under six, the visit ended up taking hours. After the touch-me-not plants, the Venus flytraps, the oversized checkerboard, and the dinosaur topiaries, the boys found the Cactus Room and all of its wild and deliciously dangerous offerings (most of them, of course, eye-level to a child). Before we knew it, the line to see Morty had already wound twice around the lobby. His appearance, after all, drew the biggest crowds in the garden’s 115-year history. But the long line was worth it, as my boys’ awe—and squeals of disgust— would attest.

The spathe, or the skirt of the corpse flower is the richest red and maroon. From a distance, its frills look like a plush velvet, an extravagant upside-down winter ball gown. But this “gown” isn’t velvet at all; rather it is waxy to the touch. In its center, the chartreuse spadix rises to the sky at recorded heights of over 12 feet. When the two rings of citrus-colored flowers fully bloom and the giant meat-skirt of the inflorescence unfolds, the spadix’s temperature approaches that of a healthy human body, one of the only times this happens in the plant world. And the famous smell—oh, the smell—becomes a fragrant invitation to nocturnal insects like carrion beetles.

Some of the names of corpse flowers cultivated in captivity over the last few years, in addition to Buffalo’s Morty: Putricia, Wee Stinky, Audrey, Octavia, Rosie, Little Dougie, Terra, Cronus, Metis, Archie, Betty, Clive, Titania, Jesse, 007, Maudine, the Velvet Queen, Maximus, Chanel, Perry, Little John, New Reekie, Aaron, Odie, Ganteng, Sprout, Wally, Morticia, and the Amazing Stinko.

I can’t get over the plant’s temperature. When you touch the spadix of a corpse flower, it feels almost human, full of blood, and you might expect to feel your hand pulse at its heartbeat. Just last week, I read how trees “speak” to each other underground, how they let out warnings of toxins or deforestation. Trees have also been known to form alliances and “friendships” through fungal networks. All of these findings are still new, but I’m in love with the idea that plants have a temperature, that they can run warm and cold when they need to, that they can send signals to species who will help them, not harm them. And what a magnificent telegraph we might send back, especially if other humans have ever made you feel alone on this earth.

 

 

Aimee NezhukumatathilAimee Nezhukumatathil’s newest book is a collection of illustrated nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions, September 2020), from which this essay is excerpted. She is also the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She received a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship and is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.

Read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.

Header photo by Erik Cox Photography, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.