What’s that smell?

On the 1st February, I had the privilege of seeing the titan arum lily flowering at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. I was prepared to get a waft of something similar to rotting flesh, but maybe the flower decided not to shower us with its best quite yet.

Six quirky facts about the titan arum lily:

  •  Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as ‘the stinky flower’, is endemic to island of Sumatra in Western Indonesia. The Indonesian word for the plant is bunga bangkai which literally translates as ‘flower’ ‘corpse, cadaver, carrion’. A pretty descriptive name. The chemicals released from the spadix have been tested, and the results show that the flower’s smell is a result of the production of chemicals like isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), trimethylamine (rotting fish) and indole (like human feaces). These smells attract insects, flies and carrion beetles, and they act as pollinators.
  • The reason why people flock to see the flowering of the titan arum is the rarity of its flowering. A first-time bloomer won’t flower until between 7-10 years old. After the first flower, some plants might not bloom for another 7-10 years, though others may bloom every 2-3 years. The plant must replenish energy spent from flowering, so every year that it doesn’t flower it sends up a leaf shoot.

Non-flowering titan arum – the plant sends up a single leaf with a large surface area to maximise photosynthesis. [Photo credit Olivia Cousins, Adelaide Botanic Gardens]

  • Once the flowering has started, it will only last for 24-36 hours. The blooming generally starts overnight, as that is when the pollinating insects are most active.

Flowering titan arum – the burgundy sheath wrapping the base of the inflorescence (flowering structure) is called the spathe, and it protects the female flowers which sit towards the base of the spadix (spike). The male flowers cover the spadix from the base upwards. [Photo credit Olivia Cousins, Adelaide Botanic Gardens]

  • It holds the record for having the largest unbranched inflorescence (flowering structure), reaching over 3m in some cases!
  • Sir David Attenborough actually coined the name ‘titan arum’ in his documentary The Private Life of Plants.
  • The titan arum is classed as vulnerable due to the increasing rate of deforestation. There are over 170 different species of titan arum, so efforts are continuously being made to try to cultivate titan arums in glasshouses and botanic gardens to ensure conservation of the species.

A celebrity of the plant world, it needs 7 years to get ready for its dramatic red carpet event.