Smells like dead rats: crowds flock to catch a whiff of blooming corpse flower in Adelaide | Adelaide

Susan Howell

A corpse flower, which emits a stench that can travel for kilometres to lure flesh flies, sweat bees and carrion beetles, has just bloomed in the Adelaide Botanic gardens.

It only blooms once every few years, and only for about 48 hours, to attract insects that have already wallowed in the pollen of another corpse flower.

The rarity of the plant itself, and its flowering, has brought thousands of people to the gardens who have queued for hours to get a mere whiff of its stink.

The endangered plant, Titan arum, native to Sumatra in Indonesia, may look like one flower but it is actually an inflorescence – a cluster of flowers on a stalk. It can grow more than 2 metres high, weigh up to 150kg and its smell is most commonly likened to dead rats, although smelly feet and stinky cheese are also contenders.

The horticulture curator for plant propagation at the botanic gardens, Matt Coulter, said the miasma when the plant was inside the greenhouse was thick enough to make him gag.

A green corpse flower in a botanic garden that has not bloomed yet
After it blooms the corpse flower will only smell for about 48 hours and will collapse within a week. Photograph: Adelaide Botanic gardens

Rainforest deforestation for palm oil in Indonesia has led to the number of corpse flowers dwindling to fewer than 1,000 in the wild, and it was listed as endangered in 2018. In an effort to conserve the species, Indonesia sent seeds to the botanic gardens and Coulter has now started propagating more plants from leaf cuttings.

“A tiny tuber will form, and then that tuber later on has the ability to become 150kg,” he said. “Our largest so far was 75kg, and it was 2.6 metres tall.

“The first night, the female flowers are active. And then the second night they stop being active and the pollen gets released [from the male flowers] – so they can’t self pollinate.

“There’s a lot of energy for the plant to produce that smell. It only wants to do it when it can actually get pollinated.

“The reason it smells is to bring the pollinator that may have been visiting another flower. [The] main pollinator is a sweat bee … it’s like a little fly. There are other carrion type insects that will be attracted to it as well.”

A composite image of a woman leaning in to smell a large flower and then putting her hand to her face
Tory Shepherd reacts to the smell of the corpse flower at the botanic gardens Composite: Tory Shepherd/The Guardian

Coulter said the crowds clamouring to inhale the reek get bigger every time there is a flowering.

“It’s the most incredible plant in the world,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful journey to be part of it.”

But it won’t last long.

“By later this afternoon, it will be gone,” Coulter said on Monday.

“Within a week or so, the whole structure will collapse.”

After Titan arum collapses, the underground tuber goes dormant for up to a year before emerging again as a leaf. Once every few years, it will re-emerge as a reincarnated corpse flower.

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