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Biologists Study Stinky Corpse Flower

Aug. 8, 2014

corpse flower

This rare corpse flower recently bloomed inside the Biology Greenhouse Complex. CSUF biologists set up an observational experiment to see when and where the plant heats up over its two-day blooming cycle.

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Inside Cal State Fullerton's Biology Greenhouse Complex, the corpse flower, one of the world's most fascinating and rare plants, is being nurtured and studied.

The plant — the Amorphophallus titanium or titan arum — blooms every three to four years and is usually only found in the rain forests of central Sumatra, Indonesia. But earlier this summer, in a campus greenhouse, a corpse flower bloomed into a 3-foot tall flower for the first time.

Edward L. Read, greenhouse manager, in collaboration with Orange Coast College's horticulture instructor Joe Stead, conducted an observational experiment to see when and where the plant heats up during its two-day blooming cycle. In June, Orange Coast College had its first corpse flower bloom, in which the public was invited to view.

Due to the plant's rising temperature as it blooms, the plant emits a powerful stench, which some say is like a rotting flesh scent, thus the plant's namesake.

"It's unique for a flower to heat up to attract its pollinators," said Read.

During its 24-to 48-hour pollination process, as the plant emits the foul odor, it attracts insects, such as carrion beetles and flies. The insects then carry pollen to other plants.

Although the plant — the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world — appears to be one huge flower, hundreds of small male and female flowers are hidden at the bottom of a large columnar structure called a spadix. The spadix is surrounded by a funnel-like green, red and purple sheath called a spathe, which unfurls to reveal the spadix when the flowers below are receptive to pollen, Read explained.

"Isn't it beautiful!" Read remarked as he witnessed the recent spectacular bloom.

During the plant's two-day bloom, Read took a series of measurements using temperature sensors and thermal photography to record the plant's heat generation and cooling over time. Christopher R. Tracy, assistant professor of biological science, whose research interests include thermo-biology, loaned his thermal camera — and expertise for the study.

"We've got precise data that will give us the whole picture," said Read, who hopes the data will reveal more about the mysterious titan arum.

Biological science major Jarrett Jones, an aspiring a high school science teacher who works in the greenhouse complex, assisted Read during the plant's blooming cycle. "It's a pretty amazing plant," said Jones, awed by its towering spadix as he helped pollinate the flowers to produce seed for future plants.

Another corpse flower is anticipated to blossom within the next two years, at which time, the plan is to invite the public to view, Read said. The last time Cal State Fullerton had a blooming plant on display for public viewing was in 2006, which drew crowds to the Fullerton Arboretum.

"It's a fun and unique plant with such a bizarre smell that it gets students and the public interested in plant biology," he said.

For more information about the greenhouse, visit online. For additional photos of the corpse flower, visit CSUF photos.

Tags:  Academics & Research