Stinky “corpse flower” makes Houston history

A rare tropical plant is starting to bloom, for the first time ever in Houston. The so-called “corpse flower,” is unfurling in giant, stinky glory at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. KUHF Health, Science and Technology Reporter Carrie Feibel takes us into the “little shop of horrors.”


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The corpse flower is endangered on its native island of Sumatra, where deforestation is rampant. But botanists have been cultivating it for years in greenhouses. They grow the fleshy green spike from a bulb called a “corm.” Here’s Nancy Greig, director of the museum’s Cockrell Butterfly Center.

“The scientific name is amorphophallus titanum which means, if I can say this on air, a giant shapeless or misshapen penis or phallus. Great name for it, actually. But it’s often called the corpse flower, because of the smell.”

The plant doesn’t flower every year, but when it does it emits the odor of a rotting animal carcass. There’s a central stalk called a spadix, which can grow up to ten feet tall. Surrounding that is a leafy collar of purple. It’s not a radiant, velvet purple but rather a murky, gloomy purple. It’s the purple of decomposing flesh.

“The spadix is basically hollow, the top part and it’s a gas chamber and that’s what produces this horrible, putrid scent. And that scent it goes in pulses, rrrrrrr, out into the rain forest night and these beetles and flies flying around come, home in on this and get in there and they roil around in the pollen and then they fly off and find another one. They’re coming because they think it’s a place to lay their eggs so their babies can grow up eating rotting meat but they were fooled by this plant.”

This will be the 29th time that a corpse flower has bloomed in the U.S. Greig says it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but warns that the smell might be overpowering. Botany professors at Stephen F. Austin watched one flower in 2004.

“It was so strong that they couldn’t even — they had fans on it to blow it away so they could approach the flower. So I guess it is really, really strong.”

But Grieg says she’s eager to face the fumes, and she also hopes they will attract some future botanists.

“I just think that anything that turns people on to plants, is totally worth it. And this turns even hardened botanists that have seen it all, they get excited about it. To me that’s it. It’s just sort of like the end-all and be-all of the plant kingdom, it’s so, so cool.”

The museum expects the corpse flower to be fully blooming — and stinking — tomorrow or over the weekend. To track the progress of the corpse flower, visit the museum’s blog:

For KUHF News, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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