Visitors to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers are about to witness the rare blooming of a titan arum, or corpse flower. The massive flower blossoms once every four to five years and lasts only 24 to 48 hours. But that may be a good thing. That's because when the petals unfurl, they emit an odor reminiscent of rotting meat.
The over two-foot-tall plant, nicknamed "Scarlet," is one of four titan arums growing at the conservatory. It last bloomed in 2019. The botanic garden's horticulturists announced the sighting of a bud on the plant on June 16, 2023. They believe the corpse flower will bloom sometime next week, just in time for the July 4th holiday.
Like most things in nature, there is a good reason for the corpse flower's pungent smell. It helps attract pollinators! Experts believe it is hard for the plant to compete with natural pollinators like bees in the wild. Hence, it evolved to produce a foul smell to attract insects like flies, beetles, and wasps that feed on dead animals. The stench draws the unsuspecting creatures to the massive flower filled with sticky pollen. Once that occurs, the flower withers, enabling the insects to escape with the pollen stuck to their bodies. Researchers do not know how far away the insects can detect the stench. But humans can smell it from nearly a mile away.
In the wild, titan arums can only be found in the equatorial forests of Sumatra, Indonesia. The plants can get up to 12 feet (365 cm) tall and weigh as much as 170 pounds (77 kg). Many conservatories around the world cultivate the giant plants. However, very few have flowered since record-keeping began in 1889. It is no wonder that the opening of these foul-smelling flowers causes such excitement.