Area rare plant lovers had an opportunity to see (and smell) something extraordinary when two members of the species Amorphophallus titanum, also known as a corpse flower, bloomed right at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture's Greenhouse Education and Research Complex, located at Temple University Ambler, in May.
Please note: The Tyler School of Art and Architecture's Greenhouse Education and Research Complex is not open to the public. Final in-person viewing took place on May 25.
Benjamin Snyder, Manager of the Tyler School of Art and Architecture's Greenhouse Education and Research Complex at Temple Ambler, has a particular passion for the fascinating "oddballs" of the plant world.
"Our collection includes many plants that were collected in the wild, as well as rare items that you're not going to easily find and replace," said Snyder, a graduate of the Temple Tyler School of Art and Architecture's Horticulture program. "We have some wonderful species, such as Bird of Paradise, flowering cacti and lots of orchids, including the coconut pie orchid, which remarkably smells exactly like you think it would."
The Temple University Ambler Campus Greenhouse and the Ambler Arboretum don't disappoint when it comes to the fascinating and the strange. The Greenhouse provides a perfect home for an eclectic group of carnivorous plants, spiny cacti of every shape and size, and species that are a great deal more bizarre and decidedly more stinky than the aforementioned orchid.
Take the Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the corpse flower, the largest "unbranched inflorescence" in the world and is native to Sumatra. The tallest flowers grow to about seven feet in height while the leaves spread a full 12 feet and the tuber weighs in at a monster 150 pounds. Snyder is currently growing a dozen of them, some of which are as tall or taller than he is.
"Our Amorphophallus have been grown from seed donated by Ohio State University in 2017 and Dartmouth College in 2019," Snyder said. "You have to be patient with these plants as it typically takes seven to 10 years for them to flower and, in some instances, it can take up to 15 years."
It's rare to see even one of these flowers. To see two was extraordinary.
"When the flower opened, it was the first time an Amorphophallus titanum had bloomed at the Ambler Campus. We have been watching this bud for the past month or so trying to determine if it was going to be a flower or a leaf — the outer bracts of the bud have now split open, revealing the ruffled spathe structure inside, which confirms that it is in fact a flower," Snyder said. "When they bloom, it's truly an event because it's still quite rare in cultivation and the bloom only lasts a couple of days; people will come for miles to see an Amorphophallus bloom. The fact that we have two blooming at once is amazing."
The fact that it attracts so much in-person interest runs counter to its other most well-known trait — when blooming it smells like death to an eye-watering degree. It's not called a corpse flower for nothing!
"The stench, the speckled maroon and pink coloring, it is this flower's way of attracting pollinators," Snyder said. "Rather than bees and butterflies, it attracts anything that would naturally be attracted to rotting meat, such as beetles and flies."
According to Snyder, the Amorphophallus titanum also goes through "thermogenesis." It can generate its own heat to a level that nearly mimics human body temperature, just another way to fool its pollinators.
"It's a technique that isn't unique to the Amorphophallus. Our native skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) blooms early; it can melt the snow around the flower," he said. "And yes, as the name suggests, they also stink and rely on flies and beetles as pollinators. They are in the same plant family, Araceae, as the Amorphophallus."
The giant corpse flower is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Due to its naturally restricted geographical habitat (western Sumatra), the corpse flower is particularly susceptible to a number of threats, the highest being deforestation and habitat destruction.
"While these plants are being cultivated ex situ, or outside their natural range, many of these specimens are decedents of a small number of introductions. As a result, the genetic diversity in cultivated corpse flowers is relatively low," said Greenhouse Manager Benjamin Snyder. "This can lead to a loss of genetic vigor through repeated inbreeding. Work is now being done to introduce wild genetic stock through pollinating cultivated corpse flowers with pollen collected from wild populations. This will help ensure the successful preservation of the species in the event of continued decline in natural populations."
Snyder said many of the more interesting species in the Greenhouse collection are used by classes — Plant Physiology for example — to get up close with plants that they might otherwise never experience.
"It's an opportunity for our students and visitors to the Arboretum to see the incredible diversity of plants and their adaptations. You're not going to run into something like the Amorphophallus very often, if ever," he said. "It raises awareness of an interest in nature and the world around us. We have this wonderful collection of fascinating plants — we hope more and more people take advantage of it."
For the home gardener, Snyder said, "many of these weird plants are really quite easy to grow, it is finding them for sale that is hard."
"I think the interest in out-of-the-ordinary plants all goes back to something different, something that stands out from the rest of the greenery. They are great attention-getters — most everyone has seen a bird of paradise flower, but not many have seen a giant corpse flower," he said. "Many of these plants are tropical, or not hardy in an outdoor garden, so these would be treated as houseplants by a home gardener. Of course, the benefit would be having something your neighbor doesn't have!"