The Scent of Decay: Malaysia’s Stinking Corpse Lily

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“You have to stop and smell the roses!” We’ve all heard the phrase, a tried and tested sentiment that implores you to take time off of your daily hassles and enjoy the finer aspects of life. If you happened to be walking through a forested area of Sumatra or Borneo, however, this advice might not be for you. Malaysia’s Stinking Corpse Lily is known as the smelliest flower on the planet, and for good reason.

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The Stinking Corpse is a title that refers to not one, but two species of putrid-smelling botanical entities. The Titan Arum, which resembles an inverted mushroom, has earned itself the title of the Stinking Corpse Flower, reaching up to 13 feet in height. Its rare counterpart, the five-petalled Rafflesia arnoldii, known colloquially as the Corpse Lily, is the largest single blooming flower on Earth.

Mary Duke, Orchid Curator at UNC Charlotte's McMillian Greenhouse, waters "Rotney" the Titan Arum plant or 'Corpse Flower', so named for the putrid smell released upon blooming. May 3, 2018

 

A Nauseating Discovery

Back in the 1800s, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then British Governor of Sumatra set off on many an expedition into the wild jungle-areas. Drawn to the many shades of diverse flora and fauna of the island, he spent his time documenting and collecting samples of his many discoveries, most still unknown to humanity as a whole. It was in the year 1818 that, along with friend and explorer Dr. Joseph Arnold, that the Governor discovered a sight that harkened back to our planets primitive ages when dinosaurs roamed the Earth in the shade of strange, colourful plant species.

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Drawn forward by the scent of what they probably believed was the result of some large predator’s morning hunt, the pair happened upon a gargantuan red flower, dotted with vibrant white spots- the unlikely source of the foul odour. It was so that the Corpse Lily was discovered for the very first time, with both botanists and historians marveling at the sheer luck of the two early explorers at having come across the flower in bloom, which typically only lasts for about three to four days before the entire flower collapses into what some describe as an unrecognisable “slimy black mass”.

 

A Bizzare Bloom

Known as the largest flower in the world, the Corpse Lily is indigenous to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, as well as areas of Eastern Malaysia. Starting off as an unsuspecting cabbage-like bud, the parasitic plant begins life upon the root of the host vine, taking about nine months to mature into full blossom. Weighing up to 11 kgs, the five-petaled flower can store several gallons of nectar within it. The plants defining odour is attributed to the combination of over 30 chemicals that it possesses, with trimethylamine giving off the scent of rotting fish and isovaleric acid contributing to the putrid essence of sweaty gym-sock, amongst an assortment of other foul-smelling contributors.

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An endangered species in each of the habitats it inhabits, the Corpse Lily is ironically its own worst biological enemy. The blooms, which are single-sex, must go through the process of cross-pollination in order to produce fertile seeds. However, owing to the rarity of female flowers, it is highly unlikely that one would bloom in the same area or at the precise moment as another male flower. In the unlikely event that pollination does occur, the flower leaves behind a 6-inch round fruit, which is consumed and subsequently distributed by squirrels and tree shrews.

A symbol of the rainforests of Borneo, the foul odour emitted by the plant attracts carrion beetles and flies into the center bowl where the pollen is located. Though the insects fly from flower to flower spreading the pollen, owing to the plants shot life-span and the fact that they grow in fewer numbers and far apart, this does not aid in the pollination process. An estimated four million seeds are produced in the event of a rare, successful pollination, with the foul-scent only noticeable at the beginning of the bloom.

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Due to the plant’s fragile condition and a requirement for near-perfect growing and sustaining conditions, seeing one blooming in the wild can be a monumental challenge. However, a chance to witness the world’s largest, smelliest and most mysterious plants is a once in a lifetime experience that should be passed up lightly.

 

Have you ever seen a Corpse Lily? Let us know!

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