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Austin Peay State University’s corpse flower not causing a stink yet – but it will

Austin Peay State University (APSU) 

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – When the corpse flower blooms, it emits an intense, foul odor. “We’re used to flowers with sweet smells that attract bees and butterflies,” Dr. Carol Baskauf, Austin Peay State University (APSU) biology professor, said.

“The nickname for this plant is ‘corpse flower’ because it smells like rotting, dead meat. It stinks terribly,” stated Baskauf.

Austin Peay State University's towering corpse flower plant should bloom in four to six years. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University’s towering corpse flower plant should bloom in four to six years. (APSU)

No bees and butterflies. No sweet smells.

But for the students of Austin Peay State University, the corpse flower plant growing in the Sundquist Science Complex greenhouse might bring a sweet reward. If all goes well, they’ll get the chance to see an already rare plant doing something even rarer – bloom.

Though corpse flower blooms are becoming more common in cultivation, they’re still rare. The world witnessed a spate of blooms in 2016, according to the BBC, when 32 plants in cultivation flowered.

If Austin Peay’s plant blooms, it will be a rare event, indeed.

What Is A Corpse Flower?

Most people know the plant by the name corpse flower, but scientists call it Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum. The plant grows naturally only in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Regardless of what name you give it, the plant is a giant, and it has an odd lifecycle. The titan arum in the Austin Peay greenhouse looks like a tree. It isn’t.

“That’s all part of one leaf,” Baskauf said.

Here’s the lifecycle:

  • A titan arum seed grows into a small leaf and an underground tuber, similar to a potato.
  • After 12-18 months, the leaf dies back.
  • The plant goes dormant for three to six months.
  • A new leaf appears, this one larger. The tuber below ground grows too.
  • The cycle repeats several times (leaf grows, leaf dies back, leaf grows again, etc.) until a bloom emerges instead of a leaf. This usually happens 7-10 years into the plant’s life.

It’s the corpse flower bloom that’s famous because they’re difficult to predict, they happen rarely and, well, they smell bad.

A 2010 scientific study found that the corpse flower smells like a combination of cheese, sweat, garlic, decomposing meat, feces and rotting fish. The odor attracts pollinators like flies and carrion beetles.

“Basically, it tricks the insects into coming to pollinate it,” Baskauf said.

Austin Peay State University’s Big Surprise

Baskauf received the plant last summer when Vanderbilt University greenhouse manager Jonathan Ertelt gave her a titan arum tuber (technically called a corm).

Ertelt has had several titan arum plants at Vanderbilt, including one that is between two and four years from blossoming.

“One of the nicest things about this occupation is if you have something nice, you share it,” Ertelt, who has given four or five corms to friends, said. “Someone shared the seeds with me. We don’t have the room to grow them all to maturity, so after growing them for several years we started to share them.”

Baskauf recalled getting the plant: “It was just this little, tiny thing, a white tip sticking out from the soil.” In the soil, though, was a 10-pound tuber.

She kept the plant in her office, and it didn’t do much at first.

“I was afraid at first I had killed it,” she said. “And then it started growing.”

Students Nudge The Giant Along

Austin Peay State University's corpse flower plant grew several feet between August and December. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University’s corpse flower plant grew several feet between August and December. (APSU)

The plant started growing in October when it was the length of a person’s hand. By November 6th, it was the length of chemistry senior Daisia Frank’s arm from her elbow to the tips of her fingers.

“We weren’t expecting much, but it started growing, and I was like, ‘Um, is it supposed to be growing like this?” Frank, who has worked with Baskauf for four years, said.

The plant was a full arm’s-length tall about a week later. By the end of November, it was growing 3-4 inches a day. And by the end of the fall semester, the plant was so tall, the students couldn’t measure it anymore.

“I’ve seen videos of people taking care of these, they’re standing on ladders,” said mathematics sophomore Erik Brooks, who worked with Baskauf last semester. “When I heard she had a corpse flower, I knew about how big they can grow, I didn’t realize how fast they grew.”

Other students who have helped Baskauf are Stephen Thrasher, Lydia Deason and Annie Lindsey. Members of the Austin Peay Physical Plant also have helped to keep the greenhouse temperatures regulated for the tropical plant.

When Does The Big Event Arrive?

Austin Peay State University's corpse flower is the offspring of plants at Ohio State University. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University’s corpse flower is the offspring of plants at Ohio State University. (APSU)

The flowering of a corpse flower is difficult to predict. Blooms usually happen when the plant is 7-10 years old, and scientists don’t know for sure if a plant is blooming until a new shoot comes up after dormancy and develops a flower spike.

“Even when the flower spike is very close to full size and ready to open, it can be hard to say until one sees the spathe leaf starting to unfurl in a particular way that the entire inflorescence is definitely starting to open,” Ertelt said. “I would guess the plant Austin Peay is four or five years from flowering.”

He hopes the biggest titan arum at Vanderbilt will bloom two to four years from now.

“I’m hoping the freshmen who are coming through will get to see it by the time they graduate,” Ertelt said.

Maybe next fall’s freshmen will see one of their own blossom at Austin Peay.


Titanic Facts About The Plant

The titan arum at Austin Peay is the offspring of two plants (named Jesse and Woody) at Ohio State University. Here are interesting titan arum facts from Ohio State team:

  • Titan arum is the largest flowering structure on Earth. The bloom typically grows to 6-8 feet tall.
  • The plant produces the largest leaf on the planet; it can reach 20 feet high.
  • The flower is open only 48 hours and uses its stench to attract pollinators like flies and carrion beetles.
  • The bloom produces its own heat to help spread the odor, reaching about the same temperature as humans maintain.
  • The plant typically needs to be 7-10 years old and the tuber needs to weigh at least 35 pounds before it will blossom.

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