On Thursday September 13th, “Pablo ‘Pe-ew’ Caso”, the Toronto Zoo’s Amorphophallus titanium, or corpse flower, was the fifth of its species to bloom in Canada and one of 200 to ever bloom in the world. Known for their stench which resembles rotting flesh, the corpse flower, indigenous to the tropical forests in Indonesia, typically blooms once a decade. Ahead of schedule, Pablo bloomed last week at only five years old. The Medium spoke with Sasa Stefanovic, a biology professor at UTM, to discuss the corpse flower and its unusual adaptations.
Stefanovic explains that Pablo is one of the many flowering plants that are pollinated by carrion flies. “Flies deposit their larvae in rotting meat and the plant co-op this function by attracting these insects with both their stench and their dark maroon color, imitating the appearance of meat and flesh,” he explains.
Similar to the Toronto Zoo’s corpse flower, the skunk cabbage, a plant from the same family as the Amorphophallus, releases a nasty odour resembling a combination of rotten cabbage and skunk spray. Located around UTM, these skunk cabbages range between ten to twelve centimetres tall and are significantly smaller than the corpse flower.
According to Stefanovic, the skunk cabbage releases its stench due to compounds like putrescine and cadaverine that smell like corpses and disulfate which smells like rotten eggs.
“Just like the corpse flower, they are not pollinated by bees, they are pollinated by flies,” Stefanovic continues. “Generally speaking, both the corpse flower and skunk cabbage produce compounds which imitate the smell of flesh and dead animals to attract their pollinators during flowering season. This is a feature that has evolved independently and can be seen in many other families of plant.”
Stefanovic speculates that Pablo bloomed earlier than expected because it may have been “planted in good conditions.”
“The Amorphophallus possesses a tuber, which is an underground stem that acts as a food storage. It also has a singular leaf with a petiole branching out, resembling a small tree which carries out photosynthesis. Starch produced in the leaf are then stored in the tuber. They need to do this season after season, and require several years of storing food underground to be able to produce an immense flower structure,” Stefanovic explains. “That is why I speculate that the condition of the greenhouse is favorable to the plant, allowing it to photosynthesize, store starch and bloom in advance. It may also just be a variation in the population. They may generally flower every ten years but some individuals flower more frequently than others.”
As if the stench of the corpse flower was not strange enough, Stefanovic reveals how both the corpse flower and skunk cabbage produce heat to expel their strong stench. Stefanovic used a video titled “Undead Zombie Flowers of Skunk Cabbage” to illustrate how the heat expelled by the skunk cabbage could melt a few inches of snow.
“The plant itself uses part of its storage to accelerate the rate of respiration, producing heat as a by-product. Not only does the heat allow the smell to disperse quicker and be more volatile, the heat also attracts cold-blooded animals like the flies.”