ST. LOUIS -- A rare flower is about to bloom at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, but those who get close enough for a look should prepare for a bouquet that is not in the slightest bit floral.
Amorphophallus titanum is the species name, but the tall and rare plant is more commonly known as the titan arum, or “corpse flower.” One whiff is all the explanation necessary—when another corpse flower bloomed earlier this year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the university described the smell as “a cross between rotting flesh and Limburger cheese.”
Botanical Garden officials say few corpse flowers exist except in the wild, in a small area of Southeast Asia. Those that have been cultivated bloom only under controlled conditions inside a greenhouse, necessary to ensure the warmth that is vital to the process. The plants can bloom as often as every two to three years, or as infrequently as every 10 years.
Spokeswoman Holly Berthold said fewer than 160 flowerings have been documented worldwide over the past 120 years. Most of those have been in recent years as the botanical community’s interest in the plant has increased.
The plants stand 3 feet tall, but the bloom itself can add another 3 feet of height. The Missouri Botanical Garden collection includes eight corpse flower specimens. Two others bloomed last year, drawing scores of visitors.
“It is an important symbol of the incredible diversity of the world’s plants, which we all need to work to conserve in cultivation and in their natural habitats,” Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, said in a statement. “By growing this species in botanic gardens we can raise awareness of the loss of its tropical forest home in the island of Sumatra, a part of Indonesia.”
The corpse flower can grow to 12 feet tall in its native habitat. It maintains its bloom for three to five days. Peak bloom—and the worst of the odor—lasts just 24 hours or so, the putrid smell emitted from a tall spike of small crowded flowers.
One of the plants bloomed on its own last year at the Botanical Garden while the other was the result of manual pollination by horticulture staff. This year, pollen was brought in from the outside to try another manual pollination.
Berthold said there’s no way to know exactly when the plant will begin to bloom, but it is expected within the next few weeks.
The Missouri Botanical Garden, which opened 154 years ago, is a center for science, conservation, education and display of horticulture.