Corpse Flower Opens, Smells A Bit More Like Garbage Than Rotting Flesh

Jul 25, 2017

To some visitors, the corpse flower smells more like garbage than rotting mammal. The rare Sumatran plant, also known as Titan arum, is believed to be the first corpse flower of this variety to bloom in Iowa.

Titan arum was expected to blossom last week, but the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden says scorching temperatures of high 90s likely delayed the plant’s unfurling. Cooler weather has arrived and the garden's staff says the corpse flower opened and began emitting its infamous stench sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 am on Tuesday.

"It kind of comes in waves," explains the garden's curatorial horticulturist Derek Carwood. "This morning for example, we were doing interviewers. It would be fine and smell great just like the conservatory usually does. And then all of the sudden you’d hit that odor and it would, you know trash or diapers or rotten cabbage would come through. It hits you pretty hard."

Titan arum evolved its redolent reek to attract carrion beetles for pollination. Andrea Love of Pleasant Hill, who was visiting the flower with her family, says the odor reminds her of a "rotten baby bunny".

"[My husband] ran over a bunny hutch last summer with a lawnmower and one of the bunnies didn't make it, so it got put in the garbage can for a few days so the boys didn't find it," she says. 

The flower is nearly four feet tall with a bulbous lower half that. When in bloom the flower opens to reveal a deep purple hue.

"The color inside is really beautiful," says Sherri Levine of Des Moines. Levine says she's visited the Titan arum twice and also watched a live stream of the flower closely from home. "So rare to see it...it's quite an event."

Originally, the Botanical Garden planned to pollinate the flower with pollen from Titan arums grown in Ohio and Missouri, but Carwood says that may not happen.

"Because it has taken so long to get to this point, we don't want to sap all of her energy," he says. "To pollinate it, as well and try to expect it to survive for another eight months or so off reserves may be too much for it."

Carwood says he will collect pollen and share it with other growers, who will send the Botanical Garden seeds in return. If it survives, the corpse flower is expected to bloom in another three to five years.

Titan arum will remain open for up to two days. The odor is only expected to last until Tuesday afternoon.