Thursday, October 25, 2018

Corpse Flowers and Other Beautifully Strange Plants

An extraordinary thing occurred this past April in Tucson, Arizona. Right in midtown, a corpse
A very large flower with purple white and pink sides and a very large pink stamen in the middle.
Corpse Flower
flower bloomed
at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. These rare flowers carry the scientific name of Amorphophallus titanum. This Latin name comes from three root words: amorphos (without form or misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant). It’s easy to see where they are going with this; a fact that was not lost on Sir David Attenborough, the English naturalist. For his BBC documentary, The Private Life of Plants, he coined a more benign name – titan arum. In their native Indonesia, they are known as bunga bangkai.

Corpse plants are huge; growing up to 12 ft. in the wild, with cultivated ones generally between 6-8 ft. However, back in 2010, a man in New Hampshire grew a 10 ft. 2¼ in. flower and won the Guinness World Record for the tallest bloom.

While their sheer size is impressive, it is the powerful smell of a corpse flower that makes a lasting impression. It takes many years, sometimes even a decade, for these flowers to build up enough energy to bloom. Once they are at about 98°F (about the same as the inside temperature of a mammalian body), they burst into a bloom that lasts no more than 48 hours. Working with such a small window of opportunity, the corpse flower amps up the enticement for carrion insects and others pollinators by emitting a stench that they will respond to. The smell gets ranker the longer the bloom lasts and it and has been compared to decaying meat, limburger cheese and poopy diapers. With the warmness of the bloom mimicking a newly dead body and the large spadix serving as a beacon or chimney of sorts to spread the odor more widely, the corpse flower has all the bases covered.

The corpse flower may be the tallest bloom, but the largest flower is the Rafflesia spp.
A very large orange and yellow bloom with 2 children crouching around it
Rafflesia flower
These rainforest behemoths can grow as large as a meter (3.2 ft.) in diameter. Rafflesia has no leaves, roots or stems, it survives and propagates by parasitizing the Tetrastigma vine. See it in the wild here.

This beast of a flower is very similar to the corpse flower: it also hails from South East Asia, it blooms for a very short time and it emits a noxious odor for the same reasons. Both the corpse flower and the Rafflesia have something else in common: they are both disappearing in the wild due to habitat loss from logging, palm oil plantations and other human endeavors. Time is especially short for the Rasflesia as it has not been successfully cultivated.

A light green cactus that looks like a human brain positioned on a black background
Brain Cactus
As I read about the corpse flower and Rafflesia, the man-eating bloom from Little Shop of Horrors kept coming to mind. I would not be surprised if carrion-loving blooms were the inspiration behind the campy carnivorous plant. The following plants could also inspire any number of spooky stories:

White berries with black dots in the center on red stems. They look like baby doll eyes.
Doll's Eyes
Brain Cactus (Mammillaria elongate f. cristata): This Mexican cactus does not always look like a human brain, sometimes it looks like a pile of writhing hairy caterpillars. Either visual is just kind of gross.

Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda): These “eyes” are really the berries of the White Baneberry plant. This plant is poisonous; but it is also used (carefully, I imagine) in traditional home cures for various ailments.
Large green rounded pod with rippled edge. It has holes in the center with seed inside them that look a bit like eyes.
Lotus Flower Seed Pods

Lotus Flower Seed Pods (Nelumbo nucifera): These may look like comic aliens, but they are really just the seed pods of the sacred lotus plant. Apparently, looking at these pods is highly distressing to certain people who can’t abide the look of clusters of holes and bumps. This condition is called trypophobia and, yes,it's a real thing.

Monkey Face Orchid (Dracula simia): Many types of orchids resemble other living things. At one time, people saw fangs in the long, dangly parts of this flower; thus, the Dracula reference. I'm not too sure about the Dracula thing; but the variety as shown in this picture sure do have monkey faces.
A brownish orchid with a yellow and white center that looks like a monkey's face.
Monkey Face Orchid

Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi): This plant is invasive and poisonous, so it is probably not a choice for your backyard garden. But it is spooky-cool looking when the web-like pods surround the pumpkin-colored flowers.
Two round orange flowers encased in a white web-like cage
Chinese Lantern

When looking at these plants, I can't help but think that Nature has a sense of humor.

                                                                      Submitted by Pam

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