Many flowers use insects to transfer pollen from one plant to another. Some flowers attract bees or butterflies. The corpse flower, though, uses carrion beetles and flesh flies. What attracts these pollinators? The color of decaying flesh, putrid scents, and the warm temperature of a freshly dead body. Lovely.
While we humans tend to focus on color, beetles and flies who pollinate the corpse flower may be more attracted to the scent and temperature. Angioy et al. (2004) showed that certain insects have the abilities to “see” temperatures and are attracted to heat. The heat generated by the spadix of the flower is unusual in the plant kingdom. Not many plants expend tons of energy to warm up to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Those few that do are called “thermogenic plants.” It’s generally accepted that the heat increases the range of the odors (Barthlott et al. 2009), which is true of course. But wouldn’t all plants benefit by increasing scent ranges? Yet this mechanism is found in plants that only mimic carcasses to attract pollinators – plants like the skunk cabbage and voodoo lily.
While most flowers give their pollinators a reward of some kind (think nectar), the corpse flower seems to just take, take, take. The plant mimics carrion, where pollinators normally lay their eggs, yet gives the pollinators no food or reward. Or could it?
I personally found it interesting that the spathe of the corpse flower closed back up after it bloomed. It’s probably protecting the developing fruit. Yet the fruit takes 6-9 months to mature. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, the spathe of their corpse flower wilted after about 3 months, exposing yet unripe fruit. Could the flower serve as protection for the developing carrion beetles? Is there any food supply for those youngsters when they hatch? Or is it just a dead end (pun intended)?
FYI: while other arums smell like corpses too (my personal favorite is the “pig-butt arum”), some species of Amorphophallus smell like bananas or carrots.
- Angioy AM et al. 2004. Function of the heater: the dead horse arum revisited. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 271(3) S13-15.
- Barthlott W et al. 2009. A torch in the rain forest: thermogenesis of the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium). Plant Biology 11. 499-505.
As I’m not an insect, I am attracted to the rich purple color of the flower like leaf-beautiful! I think I saw one of the corpse flowers either at the Chicago Botanic Garden or the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Thanks for capturing this one!
Thanks! We may not be attracted to the smell, but it is an absolutely beautiful inflorescence. Can’t wait to see the fruits as they mature. Thanks for your comment!
A very interesting and informative piece, JM. The illustration is richly coloured and detailed, wonderful!
Thank you! I really appreciate the comment from someone with such a great eye for color, form, and detail. Love your photos.
You are welcome 🙂 And thank you 🙂
Happy 5th Birthday, RedNewt! – RedNewtGallery
The Sedum, the Finch, and the Corpse Flower – RedNewtGallery