US (TN): 20-year-old corpse flower 'Rotty Top' finally blooms at greenhouse

A corpse flower finally bloomed on July 29 at the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Greenhouses at the University of Tennessee. The greenhouse obtained a corpse flower in 1999 from the University of Connecticut. They received the corm, which is the underground stem of the flower. The greenhouse manager Jeff Martin has cared for it since he took over the position in 2016.

The corpse flower naturally grows in Sumatra, Indonesia, which Martin described as a “high humidity and high temperature” environment. Normally, the flower can grow as tall as six to eight feet, but UT’s flower only grew three and a half feet tall. However, they are the “largest unbranched inflorescence” flower in the world, which means they are “made up of many smaller, individual” male and female flowers according to Palla. These flowers also don’t open at the same time, which Martin said might be to reduce the chance of self-pollination.

“They are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with fewer than 1,000 individuals estimated remaining in the wild,” Palla said. “This decline is largely due to habitat loss, climate change and poaching.”

The greenhouse employed several methods to replicate the flower’s habitat, including blackout sheets, heating pads and humidifiers. Every 18 months, they repotted the flower to accommodate for its growth based on the measurements at the time.

The flower has two main cycles that it goes through. The leaf cycle happens first and occurs several times over many years. The flower grows a large leaf to photosynthesize and store up energy for 8 to 10 months. It repeats this until it is ready to bloom, switching to its flower cycle. Usually, this cycle starts when the plant is 7 to 10 years old, with an opportunity to re-bloom after seven years. Palla breaks down what occurs during the flower cycle.

“In the first phase of bloom, the female flowers mature and are receptive to pollen,” Palla said. “During this stage, the skirt-like spathe opens up, revealing its dark maroon color. This meaty hue is favored by beetles and flies, which are also being attracted by the smell of carrion. This odor is given off by the central spadix column, which heats up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit to blast the scent molecules into the air – pollinators can smell a corpse flower’s bloom up to an acre away! They will be drawn into the open vase-like structure of the inflorescence and bop around the ring of female flowers located at the base, depositing pollen on them. If fertilized successfully, these female flowers will develop into bright red fruit.”

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